Sultana (steamboat)

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The steamboat Sultana was a Mississippi River paddlewheeler destroyed in an explosion on 27 April 1865, resulting in the greatest maritime disaster in United States history. An estimated 1,700 of the Sultana's 2,400 passengers were killed when one of the overcrowded ship's four boilers exploded and the Sultana sank not far from Memphis, Tennessee. This disaster was less noticed than it might have been, however, because of the recent assassination of President Abraham Lincoln and the end of the Civil War.


[edit] The Sultana

The ill-fated wooden steamship had been constructed in 1862 by the John Lithoberry Shipyard on Front Street in Cincinnati, Ohio, intended for the lower Mississippi cotton trade. Her iron boilers were also constructed in Cincinnati. Weighing 1,719 tons, the steamer normally carried a crew of 85. For two years, she ran a regular route between St. Louis and New Orleans. She was frequently commissioned by the War Department to carry troops.

[edit] The Tragedy

The Sultana on fire, from Harpers Weekly
The Sultana on fire, from Harpers Weekly

The Sultana, under the command of Captain J.C. Mason of St. Louis, left New Orleans on April 21, 1865, with 75 to 100 cabin passengers, and considerable livestock bound for market in St. Louis. At Vicksburg, Mississippi, she stopped for a series of hasty repairs and to take on more passengers, and well over a thousand crowded aboard. Most of these new passengers were Union soldiers (mostly from Ohio) just released from Confederate prison camps such as Cahawba and Andersonville. Sultana had been contracted by the United States government to transport these former prisoners of war back to their homes. With a legal capacity of only 376, the Sultana was severely overcrowded, and many of her passengers had been weakened by their incarceration and associated illnesses. Passengers were packed into every available berth, and the overflow was so severe that the decks were completely packed.

The cause of the tragedy was a leaky and poorly repaired steam boiler. The boiler gave way several miles north of Memphis at about 3:00 A.M. in a terrific explosion that sent some of those passengers on deck into the water and destroyed a good portion of the ship. Hot coals scattered by the explosion soon turned the remaining superstructure into an inferno, the glare of which could be seen in Memphis.

The first boat on the scene was the southbound steamer Bostonia which overtook the burning wreck and rescued scores of survivors. The hulk drifted to the west bank and sank off the tiny settlement of Mound City, Arkansas, about dawn. Other vessels joined the rescue, including the steamer Arkansas, the Jenny Lind, the Essex, and the Navy gunboat Tyler, manned by volunteers, as her crew had been discharged days before.

Passengers not killed by the explosion or trapped in the burning wreckage had to choose between burning to death or risking their lives in the overflooded Mississippi River, where many died of drowning or hypothermia. Some survivors were plucked from trees along the Arkansas shore. Bodies of the victims continued to be found for months downriver, some as far as Vicksburg. Many bodies were never recovered. The Sultana's officers, including Captain Mason, perished.

About 500 survivors were transported to hospitals in Memphis, many with horrible burns. Up to 300 of these victims died later from burns or exposure. Newspaper accounts indicate that the people of Memphis took the victims of the disaster to heart despite the fact that they had until recently been enemies. The Chicago Opera Troupe staged a benefit, the crew of the Essex raised $1,000, and the mayor took in three survivors.

Monuments and historical markers to the Sultana and its victims have been erected at Memphis, Muncie, Indiana; Marion, Arkansas; Vicksburg, Mississippi; Cincinnati, Ohio; Knoxville, Tennessee; Hillsdale, Michigan; and Mansfield, Ohio

[edit] Casualties

No exact death toll is known, and estimates range from 1,300 to 1,900. An official count by the United States Customs Service at the time was 1,547. Modern historians tend to concur on a figure of "up to 1,700". Final estimates of survivors were between 700-800.

[edit] Cause

The official cause of the Sultana disaster was determined to be mismanagement of water levels in the boiler, exacerbated by "careening." The Sultana was severely overcrowded and top heavy. As she made her way north following the twists and turns of the river, she listed severely to one side then the other. However, the Sultana's four boilers were interconnected and mounted side-by-side, so that if the ship tipped sideways, water would tend to run out of the highest boiler. With the fires still going against the empty boiler, this created hot spots. When the ship tipped the other way, water rushing back into the empty boiler would hit the hot spots and flash instantly to steam, creating a sudden surge in pressure. This effect of careening could be minimized by maintaining high water levels in the boilers. The official inquiry found that Sultanas boilers exploded due to the combined effects of careening, low water level, and a faulty repair to a leaky boiler made a few days previously.

However, in 1888, a St. Louis resident named William Streetor claimed that his former business parter, Robert Louden, had made a deathbed confession to have sabotaged the Sultana by means of a coal torpedo. Louden was a former Confederate agent and saboteur who operated in and around St. Louis. Louden had the opportunity and motive to attack the Sultana, and he may have had access to the means (Thomas Edgeworth Courtenay, the inventor of the coal torpedo, was a former resident of St. Louis and was involved in similar acts of sabotage against Union shipping interests.) Supporting Louden's claim are eyewitness reports that a piece of artillery shell was observed in the wreckage. Louden's claim is controversial and most scholars support the official explanation.

[edit] Survivors

An East Tennessee Sultana survivors group met annually on April 27 until 1928, when only four survivors were left. One of Natalie Kinsey-Warnock's relatives was a survivor.

[edit] Remnants found

In 1982, a local archaeological expedition uncovered what is believed to be the wreckage of the Sultana. The Mississippi River has changed course several times since the disaster with the main channel now about two miles east of its 1865 position. The blackened wooden deck planks and timbers were found about 32 feet under a soybean field on the Arkansas side, about four miles from Memphis.

[edit] Further reading

  • Stephen Ambrose: Remembering Sultana, National Geographic News, May 1, 2001
  • Chester D. Berry: Loss of the Sultana and Reminiscences of Survivors (University of Tennessee Press, 2005) ISBN 1-57233-372-3 (First published 1892)
  • William O. Bryant: Cahaba Prison and the "Sultana" Disaster (University of Alabama Press, 1990) ISBN 0-8173-0468-1
  • Hank Harvey, retired staffer for The (Toledo) Blade, coverage on Sultana disaster, Sunday, October 27, 1996, Section C, Pages 3,6.
  • Jerry O. Potter: The Sultana Tragedy: America’s Greatest Maritime Disaster (Pelican Publishing, 1992) ISBN 0-88289-861-2
  • Gene Eric Salecker: Disaster on the Mississippi: the Sultana Explosion, April 27, 1865. Naval Institute Press, 1996. ISBN 1-55750-739-2
  • Gene Eric Salecker: "A Tremendous Tumult and Uproar." America's Civil War, May 2002, Vol. 15 Issue 2
  • G.E. and Deb Rule: "The Sultana: A case for sabotage." North and South Magazine, vol 5, issue 1.

[edit] External links