Death on the River
They survived the Civil War and a Confederate POW camp — but not the SS Sultana
NFPA Journal®, March/April 2013
In the Spring of 1865, after spending months in the notorious Confederate prison camps of Andersonville and Cahaba, all the freed Union soldiers wanted to do was to go home. That April, they finally got their chance. They boarded the Mississippi River steamship SS Sultana at Vicksburg, Mississippi, eager to see their families again, some for the first time in years.
Most never made it home. At 2 a.m. on April 27, about seven miles north of Memphis, one of the Sultana’s boilers exploded, triggering a deadly chain of explosions and fire. An estimated 1,700 people were killed in the incident, making it the worst maritime disaster in U.S. history — deadlier even than the sinking of the Titanic 47 years later, when slightly more than 1,500 people died.
The SS Sultana, built in 1863 to ply the Mississippi from New Orleans to St. Louis, was designed to carry a maximum of 376, including a crew of 85. When it left New Orleans on April 21, it carried between 75 and 100 passengers. The boat landed at Vicksburg on April 23 to take on more passengers and to repair one of its four boilers, which was leaking. When told that replacing the boiler would take days, the captain told the boilermaker to patch it instead and said he would replace it when they reached St. Louis.
The captain also persuaded army representatives to let him take aboard 2,000 or more newly released Union soldiers, thereby earning the $5 a head that the government was offering to carry each former POW north. The soldiers, many weak from disease and malnutrition, crammed themselves into every available space.
With a load approximately six times its legal capacity, the Sultana set off for Memphis to pick up more cargo, then crossed the river to Arkansas to load coal. In the wee hours of April 27, the ship was again on its way north when the repaired boiler exploded, as did two others. Shrapnel and steam tore through the deck above the boiler room, killing many passengers outright and hurling hundreds of others into the frigid waters of the Mississippi. Those who could grabbed anything else that might float and jumped to escape the flames that erupted around them.
The explosion was heard all the way back in Memphis, and rescuers responded immediately. By the time they arrived, however, most of the passengers were beyond help. “Boats searched for survivors all morning but stopped looking by midday,” according to thisweekinthecivilwar.com. “Of the estimated 2,300 passengers, only 600 survived.” Despite rumors of sabotage, a board of inquiry concluded that the explosion was the result of insufficient water in the boilers. No one was blamed for the tragedy.
The wreckage of the Sultana lay undisturbed for more than 100 years as the river flowed over it, changing course every now and then. In 1982, in a field near Memphis, archeologists unearthed blackened planks believed to belong to the ill-fated ship.
— Kathleen Robinson