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The "Sultana" Disaster
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When the boiler exploded aboard the steamer Sultana on April 27, 1865, more than 1,700 people lost their lives. Most of those aboard were recently released Union prisoners from the Confederate prisons in Cahaba, Alabama, and Andersonville, Georgia. They were bound for Camp Chase, Ohio, but the explosion occurred only a few hours into the journey. In addition to the faulty boiler, the ship was also grossly overburdened with 2,200 passengers on a vessel built to carry 376.
The descriptive pamphlet (DP) provided by NARA for this title is available here. Much of the information on this page is taken directly from the DP, and the contents of each of the three rolls of original microfilm are listed there as well.
Following the surrender of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, on April 9, 1865, the United States Government began to demobilize Federal troops and release those held in Confederate custody. Most of those sailing on the Sultana were former prisoners held in Confederate prisons in Cahaba, Alabama, and Andersonville, Georgia. The men were sent to Camp Fisk outside of Vicksburg, Mississippi, where they waited for ships to take them north.
The Quartermaster had the responsibility of transporting soldiers from Confederate prison camps to Federal camps in the north for discharge. The Sultana, owned by the Merchants and People’s line, had a government contract to transport troops and freight. The Sultana was contracted in this instance to carry the men up the Mississippi River to Camp Chase, Ohio.
Captain Frederick Speed, assistant adjutant general of volunteers, Department of the Mississippi, volunteered to take the temporary job of commissioner of exchange for prisoners. He coordinated the transfer of the prisoners from Camp Fisk, Mississippi, to the wharf in Vicksburg where the Sultana was docked. Before departing New Orleans in late March, the Sultana’s boiler had been repaired. She was declared sound, and proceeded to Vicksburg. Steaming away from Vicksburg, she carried approximately 2,200 passengers on a ship built to carry 376. (Figures vary on the number of people onboard and the number who died.) The Sultana left Memphis, Tennessee, around 7 p.m. on April 26. Around 2 a.m. on the 27th, the boiler exploded. The ship burned quickly, and more than 1,700 people died from the explosion or by drowning.
Quickly reacting to the disaster, Gen. Cadwallader Colden Washburn, commander, district of West Tennessee, issued Special Order 109 on April 27 establishing a panel to investigate the tragedy. The commission took its first testimony at 11:30 that morning.
On April 30, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton issued Special Order 195, which ordered Brig. Gen. William Hoffman, Commissary General of Prisoners, to begin a separate investigation. Many of the files from the Washburn Commission are incorporated into this report.
On January 9, 1866, Speed’s court-martial convened in Vicksburg. He was charged with “neglect of duty to the prejudice of good order and military discipline.” Six months later the court-martial found Speed guilty and dismissed him from the Army. Maj. Gen. Thomas J. Wood upheld the findings of the court and sent the file to Secretary of War Stanton, who forwarded the case to Brig. Gen. Joseph Holt, judge advocate general of the U.S. Army.
Holt dismissed the charges, and on September 1, 1866, Speed mustered out of the U.S. Army.
Using the records
According to the DP: The records often appear to be out of order. There are two reasons for this. The commissions and Adjutant General’s Office (AGO) requested copies of the records of earlier commissions and interfiled these records. Also, these are high-use records and may have lost their original order over time. Moreover, copies of the same record, such as Special Order 109, appear in separate files.
This publication contains several lists that give the name and unit of soldiers who survived or died. With this information researchers can request copies of compiled military service records and pensions. A random check of the names, however, found that the lists are not always accurate. The names and units, written in the chaos of boarding the Sultana, could have been written down incorrectly. Mistakes could also have been made when the lists were later copied.
This microfilm, from which Fold3 digitized the records, is the best available copy of the records. Many of the letters and reports were written in pencil and are light. Other records were used so much that the ink has faded, making the records difficult to read.
Records relating to the Sultana are also found in Letters Received by the Commission Branch of the Adjutant General’s Office, 1863–1870. (National Archives Microfilm Publication M1064); Commission Branch records for Frederick Speed: A380 CB 1865 (roll 137); D140 CB 1865 (roll 155); S1045 CB 1866 (roll 297); and S181 CB 1869 (roll 447).
The following sources are published government documents and may be available through a Federal depository library.
The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (also known as the Official Records of the War of Rebellion): Series I, Volume XLVIII , pages 211–220, 223–225.
House of Representatives published reports (Record Group 287)
United States Congress, Annual Report of the Secretary of War for the Year 1865, 39th Congress, 1st Session, House Executive Document, Vol. 3, Part 1, No. 1
_______, Report of the Board of Supervising Inspectors of Steamboats, House Executive Document 3, 39th Congress, 1st Session, 1865–1866
______, House Report 598, 43rd Congress, 1st Session, Serial 1625, United States House of Representatives
______, House Miscellaneous Documents, 4, 43rd Congress, 2nd Session, Serial 1653, United States House of Representatives
______, House Report 1160, 57th Congress, 1st Session, Serial 4403, United States House of Representatives
Records of the Sultana Disaster, April 27, 1865, is digitized from three rolls of microfilm publication M1878.
These records are from several Record Groups (RGs): Records of the Office of the Quartermaster General, RG 92; Records of the Adjutant General’s Office, 1780’s to 1917, RG 94; Records of the Office of the Judge Advocate General (Army), RG 153; Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, RG 233; and Records of the Commissary General of Prisoners, RG 249.