At 2am on April 27th 1865, seven miles upstream from Memphis, the side-paddle steamer Sultana was slowly making way against a strong spring current when a large explosion occurred followed quickly by two more. A column of fire and steam shot up almost cutting the boat in two; within minutes the boat was a blazing wreck. This resulted in the deaths of at least 1,700 people, mostly paroled prisoners returning north as the war was ending. The sinking remains to this day the United States worst civilian boat disaster.

So what had happened? The Sultana was a wide berth cargo/passenger steamer skippered by a maverick captain who had just had the distinction of making the fastest trip between New Orleans and St Louis. Captain J Cass Mason had arrived in Vicksburg a few weeks before on his way to New Orleans, he met with the Chief Q.M. of the Mississippi, Col. Ruben Heath who told him that the Federal Government were paying $5 per enlisted man and $10 per officer to any steamboat owner who would take them north. Col. Heath was a scoundrel who had been cheating the Government throughout the war and had only managed to avoid court martial through his family connections in Washington. Mason left New Orleans leaving Heath to arrange to get as many men as he could for him to pick up on the return trip.

With bribes and deception Heath fooled the Officers in charge of the prisoner repatriation Capt. Frederick Speed and he in turn deceived Captains Williams and Kerns who were under pressure to empty the transit camps. As the Sultana arrived back he had at least 1,400 men ready to board with more on the trains due to arrive. The Sultana had been delayed slightly as it had developed a bulge and leak in one of its four boilers; advised by engineers to have two whole plates removed and replaced, Cass and his chief engineer made do with riveting a patch over the problem. Despite this, loading started on the morning of April 24th. The men being loaded did express doubts about overloading when they saw crew having to wedge large beams in to hold up the decks that were beginning to sag under the weight of so many and were puzzled about the numbers boarding Sultana when there were other craft available.

As the boat cast off from Vicksburg docks, she carried nearly 2,100 paroled prisoners who were policed by 22 men of the 58th Ohio Regiment. In addition to this there were 90 or so paying passengers and the boats crew of 88. In the cargo holds were two thousand hogsheads of sugar each weighing 1,200lbs but the strangest passenger must have been a large alligator in a sturdy crate. Mason had bought it in New Orleans as a mascot. All this on a boat that was registered to carry 376 people.

The first signs of any trouble arose when the boat passed other vessels or sights of interest on the shore, being a flat bottomed boat the Sultana had become top heavy and as men went from one side to the other she listed badly. This meant that the water in her boilers flowed from one side to the other emptying one and flooding another, as the boat righted, steam pressure built up in the refilling boiler. The crew and men of the 58th Ohio tried to stop this movement it became even more serious when at Memphis the sugar was unloaded. The boat was now seriously top heavy.

A few men had slipped ashore and disappeared after helping to unload the sugar, so the actual count of people on board is impossible to state, overcrowding was still a problem as the Sultana slipped her moorings at around midnight. Seven miles upstream she hit the full flood current and listed badly, the repaired starboard boiler could no longer take the pressure and blew, the two boilers amidships followed suit in a tremendous roar.

The blast tore out the centre of the vessel ripping apart the upper decks, the area immediately above the boiler room where sick and wounded soldiers had been placed was completely destroyed. Further damage to the surrounding area was caused as one of the huge smoke stacks crashed down. Below the boiler room the furnaces were badly damaged and fire broke out, soon to be uncontrollable as it was fanned by the breeze blowing down the river. The huge amount of escaping steam caused horrific injuries to men as it blasted aft, many could not have known what had hit them and many more were flung into the river by it.

The fire caused panic. At first the men in the bow area thought themselves safe as the fire spread aft, yet as the wreck turned in the current so the fire spread towards them, anything that would float was flung overboard and the lucky few that found ropes lowered themselves into the water, yet the months of bad diet and depredation in Confederate prisons meant that many drowned in the river. One quick thinking soldier however made his own life raft. Private William Lugenbeal bayoneted the alligator and used its crate to take him downstream.

An hour after the blast the southbound steamer Boston II came upon the burning Sultana, everything that could be done to save men was tried and about 150 were pulled aboard. The captain of the Boston II realised that the current was taking men down stream, then sped to Memphis to raise the alarm. However the town was already aware of the event, a soldier, Private Wesley Lee, had been blown off the deck and had managed to swim and float all the way to Memphis where he was lucky to be spotted by night-watchmen on the levee. Now many small craft were in the river searching for survivors being washed down stream. Problems arose when soldiers on guard at the nearby Fort Pickering who had been told to be aware of guerrilla activity opened fire on the small dark craft traversing the river, nobody was injured however and once the position was made clear the fort's compliment helped in the rescue by taking survivors in.

With most of the superstructure burnt away the Sultana was boarded again by some 40 or so men who had lowered themselves to the water line, the wreck drifted into a flooded grove of trees and shortly after the men were taken off she sank. In all 786 people were rescued most of whom were injured in some way; some 200 of these would die in hospital. Capt. Mason was among the killed; the pilothouse was destroyed in the initial blast as was the officers' quarters. Many of the survivors were placed in another steamer and one can understand their reluctance to make the trip, it was reported that one man spent the entire journey sitting in the steamer's small dingy.

News soon spread of the sinking, yet little was made of it. President Lincoln had just been assassinated and the country was weary of war news. The authorities in Washington however started an inquiry. Three official investigations were held, at first it was reported that a Confederate bomb had been smuggled on board in the coal, that was quickly dismissed by engineers. They pointed to a number of factors, firstly poorly designed boilers that had been badly repaired, the top-heavy state of the craft and the lack of ballast. Four men were found to be culpable for the overcrowding: Col. Hatch and Captains Speed, Williams and Kerns. Williams and Kerns although holding office concerning the prisoners transportation were clearly able to get out of any censure. It is apparent that Speed was to be held as a scapegoat. He was court-martialled and his defence tried to subpoena the unscrupulous Hatch to testify, he refused having quit the army soon after the disaster, the military justice system could not touch him.

Speed was found guilty on all counts and faced a dishonourable discharge, however upon review by the judge Advocate General of the Army the findings were reversed, no one else faced any charges.

There is no memorial to the soldiers who died. Survivors sought to have one erected

But it came to nothing. Major Will McTeer the adjutant of the 3rd Tennessee Cavalry which lost 213 men in the catastrophe wrote

There in the bosom of the Mississippi they found their resting place. No stone or tablet marked with their names or even unknown for them ... flowers are strewn over the graves in the cemeteries of our dead but there are none for the men who went down with the Sultana. But let us remember them.

Hugh Martyr, 118th Pa.

The above article first appeared in the ACWS Newsletter, April 2003