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Maritime Disasters: The Sultana

April 21st, 2016 by Piper Smith

On April 27, 1865, some 1,700 people—many of them Union soldiers recently freed from Confederate prison camps—perished after this side-wheel steamboat exploded, burned and sank in the Mississippi River. Launched in 1863 in Cincinnati, the 260-feet-long, wooden-hulled Sultana was licensed to carry 376 passengers. During the Civil War, it made regular trips between New Orleans and St. Louis, often transporting troops and supplies for the federal government.

On April 24, 1865, the Sultana stopped at Vicksburg, Mississippi, to pick up discharged Union soldiers, many of them weak and malnourished from their time in such notorious POW camps as Andersonville and Cahaba. The U.S. government paid steamboat companies to transport soldiers to their homes in the North: $5 for each enlisted man and $10 for each officer, and, as a result, some companies bribed military officials in order to take on as many soldiers as possible. The Sultana departed Vicksburg with an estimated 2,400 people on board—more than 2,000 soldiers, 100 civilians and 80 crew members—six times the vessel’s legal capacity. At around 2 a.m. on April 27, just north of Memphis, three of the Sultana’s four boilers suddenly exploded and the boat caught fire. Hundreds of passengers burned to death, while hundreds more were thrown into the surging Mississippi by the force of the blast or jumped into the water to escape the flames onboard–and ended up drowning.

The sinking of the Sultana was the deadliest maritime disaster in U.S. history, but it was largely overlooked because it came so soon after the end of the American Civil War (Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered his Confederate force to Gen. Ulysses Grant on April 9) and the assassination of President Lincoln (April 14).