The Sultana: The Worst Maritime Disaster in U.S. History
Updated: Oct 5, 2020
April, in Civil War history, was a month of many events--Fort Sumter, the Surrender at Appomattox, and President Lincoln's assassination--to name just a few. One often overlooked calamity of Civil War history, however, is the sinking of the Sultana--the worst maritime disaster in United States history (yes, even worse than the Titanic!).
The Sultana was docked April 23, 1865, at Vicksburg, Mississippi. The steamboat had been experiencing boiler issues, and it needed to be repaired. J. Cass Mason, the Sultana's captain, received a very lucrative offer from the United States government while his boat was docked, however. If Mason agreed to ferry prisoners from prisoner of war camps Andersonville and Cahaba into Northern territory, he would receive $5.00 for every enlisted soldier and $10.00 for every officer--a hefty sum by 1860's standards.
Mason, who was experiencing some financial struggles anyway, realized that this contract with the government was too good to pass up. So, instead of permanently repairing the steamboat's boiler (which would take more time and money), it was simply "patched up." At Vicksburg, Mississippi, Union prisoners of war--most of them from the Midwest--were piled onto the boat. The Sultana, meant to hold just 376 passengers, held more than 2,000 Union soldiers.
Federal soldiers, relieved to finally be heading home after confinement in Confederate prisons, were merry as the Sultana chugged North toward Cairo, Illinois. Prisoners, who had endured overcrowded prisons, starvation, and mistreatment, were on the steamboat that would literally transport them to freedom and their families back home. Or so they thought.
Overcrowding and the spring thaw on the Mississippi River placed too great a pressure on the already patched up boiler. At 2:00 a.m. on April 27, 1865, three out of four of the steamboat's boilers exploded. Prisoners from Tennessee and Kentucky were some of the first to perish, as they were placed closest to the boilers.
Soldiers, asleep on the steamboat, were plunged into the icy waters. To survive, some tried to swim to safety or grab debris from the explosion just to stay afloat. Many of them, however, still perished. Other soldiers were burned, drowned, or killed upon the impact of fallen debris.
Some lucky soldiers did manage to survive. In fact, John Fogelman, a resident of former Confederate-held Marion, Arkansas, built a raft to help save 25 Federal soldiers. Franklin Hardin Barton, a Confederate soldier of the 23rd Arkansas Cavalry, was once tasked with raiding steamboats coming down the Mississippi River. Barton, during the Sultanta explosion, now helped his former Union adversaries to safety.
The Sultana explosion was the worst maritime disaster in United States history with 1,800 people dead of the more than 2,000 passengers. This leaves many individuals to wonder, then, why the Sultana is so often overlooked in historical studies. Much of this is due to the fact that Abraham Lincoln's assassination, and the subsequent pursuit of his murderer, dominated newspapers of the era. Additionally, most citizens were tired of the killing and suffering that marked the Civil War era. Perhaps that is why the Sultana explosion was not even reported in newspapers until April 29, 1865.
Even though the Sultana is not often mentioned in regards to Western Theater Civil War studies, it was an important aspect of the war. Soldiers, who had survived months in filthy prisons, met a horrible demise on the Sultana. Like all history, the sinking of the Sultana--and those who perished on the steamboat--deserves to be remembered.
“Sultana.” Encyclopedia of Arkansas, 20 July 2017, https://encyclopediaofarkansas.net/entries/sultana-steamboat-2269/
“The Shipwreck That Led Confederate Veterans To Risk All For Union Lives.” NPR, 27 Apr. 2015, https://www.npr.org/2015/04/27/402515205/the-shipwreck-that-led-confederate-veterans-to-risk-all-for-union-lives
“The Sultana Disaster.” American Battlefield Trust, n.d., https://www.battlefields.org/learn/articles/sultana-disaster
“The Sultana Disaster Museum.” The Sultana Disaster Museum, n.d., http://www.sultanadisastermuseum.com/
About the Author: Kass Cobb is a genealogist, history enthusiast, and college sophomore who plans to double-major in history and military history. Kass first became obsessed with history in eighth grade through a unit on the American Civil War. She began researching her family's heritage and discovered that she is a direct descendant of eight Civil War veterans. Since then, Kass has desired to share the stories of United States veterans. One of the ways she does this is by obtaining grave markers for veterans. When Kass isn't busy planning historical events for her community, placing signs at cemeteries, or researching her family's past, you'll find her antique collecting, reading, singing, and enjoying nature with her many pets.