The Sinking of the Sultana

The Sinking of the Sultana


The explosion of the steamship Sultana on April 27, 1865, was the worst shipwreck in American history. Not only did more than 1,500 die, but most of the dead were Union POWs finally headed home at the end of the war.

Stories about The Sinking of the Sultana


    _During the Civil War years over sixty Union steamboats were destroyed by Confederate sabotage on the Mississippi River and in the surrounding area. Thousands of lives%u2014Union soldiers, civilian men, women, and children%u2014were lost when these steamers were destroyed. _ _"...the result of no accident, but of fiendish design, and locates with much particularity the boss dynamiter and murderer of the age."

    St. Louis Globe-Democrat

    May 6, 1888_

    Having survived the  Civil War and inhuman conditions at Andersonville and other notorious POW camps, it was a cruel irony that the soldiers died just as their ordeal was about to end.

    To transport POWs home at the end of the war, the government offered shipping companies a fee for every soldier they carried north on the Mississippi,  The Sultana, a 1,700-ton steamship with a capacity to carry only a few hundred people, crowded almost 2,500 soldiers aboard, and headed north for Cairo, Ill A little north of Memphis, its boiler exploded. There were no life boats or life jackets.

    Another irony of the disaster is how little attention it received, despite its being America's worst maritime disaster. Occurring in April 1865%u2014the same month Lee surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse (April 9), President Lincoln was assassinated  (April 14), the manhunt for John Wilkes Booth  ended (April 26), and Jefferson Davis and his cabinet were still at large%u2014it was obscured in the welter of other events. Yet even today, few American history books mention the disaster, despite the fact that the Sultana remains unrivalled among shipping catastrophes and adds a particularly wretched chapter to our Civil War.


    An excerpt from the Memphis Argus of April 28, 1865:
    The flames burst in great fury in a very few minutes after the explosion on the Sultana. No time was allowed for the people to do anything. Ladies rushed forth from their berths in the night attire, and with a wild scream plunged into the angry flood and sank to rise no more. The pitiful cried of children as they, too, rushed to the side of the wreck and plunged into the water were mingled with the hoarser voices of manhood in the desperate struggle for life. More than 2,000 people were thus compelled to choose between a death by fire and a sleep beneath the wave. Hour after hour rolled away, and the struggle for the great multitude in the river continued. Manhood was powerless. Husbands threw their wives into the river and plunged into the water after them, only to see them sink in death. Some had secured doors and fragments of the wreck and were thus enabled to keep a longer time above the water. Those who were swimmers struck for the shore, where they could find trees and bushes to keep them above the water. Some were carried down by the current until opposite the city, where their cries attracted the attention of the people on the steamers lying at the wharf. Yawls, skiffs, and every available small boat was put into immediate requisition and sent out into the stream to pick up the survivors. A considerable number were thus rescued from a watery grave. One lady with an infant in her arms was forced by the current several miles, and was finally rescued by some of the small boats that were cruising around. She exhibited the most remarkable heroism%u2013still clinging to her precious charge and supporting it above the water until rescued. The small boats from the United States gunboats did good service.


    On April 28, 1912 a newspaper ran a story comparing the Sultana tragedy to the sinking of the Titanic on April 15. That account said:

    "Ill-fated Mississippi River Steamboat which blew up Apr. 27, 1865, seven miles above Memphis, killing over 1,500 passengers. Most of them Union soldiers paroled from southern prisons %uFFFD A disaster as fearful as that attending the Titanic." %u2014 [Later examination of Sultana's manifest showed that the number killed was actually greater than 1,700.]\


    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.

    An East Tennessee Sultana survivors group met annually on April 27 until 1928, when four survivors were left.

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