The Sultana’s fateful, and forgotten, voyage

As many are aware, this month marks the 150th anniversary of the tumultuous April 1865. While Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, the assassination of President Lincoln, and the ensuing manhunt and execution of John Wilkes Booth absorb most of the spotlight, one historically significant event in particular seems to be forgotten.

The explosion and sinking of the SS Sultana on the Mississippi River occurred on April 27, 1865, just one day after the capture and execution of Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth. While death tolls are unknown, it is estimated that 1800 people died, either by fire or drowning, making it the worst US maritime disaster.

At the end of the Civil War, the need for vessels to transport released prisoners of war arose. Martin Sandler, in his book, Lost to Time, writes that the United States government offered $5 for each enlisted man and $10 for each military officer that a ship carried home (these amounts would be the equivalent of $70 and $140 today).

Not surprisingly, Sandler continues, the offer of money created an atmosphere of corruption, and no one was in a worse financial pickle than the captain and co-owner of the SS Sultana, J. Cass Mason. Mason influenced Union officials to load soldier after soldier onto the boat. In an effort to grab more cash, Mason also took on 100 private passengers, as well as 250 barrels of sugar and 97 cases of wine. On the rear deck, the captain turned his ship into a regular Noah’s Ark, adding approximately 100 mules and horses and another 100 hogs.

Given the fact that the ship was state-of-the-art, with systems in place to detect flaws in any of its four boilers, and that the ship was widely viewed as one of the best steam vessels in the world, Mason and government officials had every reason to have faith in the Sultana’s ability to complete the voyage. Oh, except for the minor fact that in addition to the livestock and cargo, Mason had packed approximately 2400 people on a boat fit for 376. To make matters worse, the Sultana had only one life boat and one doctor.

Departing from New Orleans en route to Cairo, Ill. in late April, the ship experienced difficulties from the beginning. While docked in Vicksburg, Miss., a bulge in the wall of a middle boiler was discovered. Instead of fixing the problem, which would have taken days, Mason made the decision to carry on. He feared that the delay would provide an opportunity for other riverboats to pluck passengers from his ship. On April 25, while stopped in Helena, Ark., the Sultana nearly experienced a disaster when a rush of passengers to one side of the boat to pose for a photo almost caused it to tip. Crisis averted, or so they thought.

In the early hours of April 27, the three functional boilers exploded, killing hundreds of sleeping voyagers instantly. The blast was so loud that seven miles away in Memphis, residents could hear the noise. The boilers then spewed hot coals into the air, which in turn rained down on the ship, turning it into a sailing inferno. Men and women faced no other option than to jump into the waters of the mighty Mississippi, where many would ultimately succumb to its freezing temperatures.

Amazing tales of survival have lasted. Sandler writes that a female passenger known only as Mrs. Perry was attacked by two men and nearly drowned three times as she fought to cling to a floating piece of debris. Brothers James and Jesse Millsaps, soldiers who spent the war fighting side-by-side, were separated by the chaos. In the darkness, each brother found themselves clinging to the end of a long, sharing with another person. When the sun rose, they discovered that they shared the same log.

For his part, history has recorded that Captain Mason served his passengers bravely throughout the disaster, assisting burn victims and providing passengers with makeshift flotation devices. Mason died in the catastrophe. Official investigations did little to attribute cause or blame for the disaster. One man, Captain Frederic Speed, was convicted of accepting bribes to overload the ship, but six months later the conviction was overturned.

And with that, the tale of the Sultana sank into the annals of history.

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