While maybe not so epic and rather traumatizing and destructive, it has been rather forgotten.
Sultana was a steamboat constructed in 1863 and mainly planed to be used for cotton trade. It was in good use for two years and was also good for carrying civil war troops.
Sultana, controlled by Captain James Cass Mason, set sail and left on April 13th, 1865 to go to New Orleans. Two days later on April 15th the ship was tied up at Cairo, Illinois.
Chaos struck America, and Cairo when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on the same day, and Captain James Mason had heard of this. He instantly headed south, not using any forms of what you might expect, telegraphic communication. There was no possibility of using telegraphs, because you couldn’t, almost all of it had been destroyed and cut off when the civil war ended.
Andersonville Confederate Prison Camp
Mason was approached by Captain Reuben Hatch, a chief quartermaster of Vicksburg, when he had reached Vicksburg, Mississippi. Hatch gave Mason an offer, and this is how it went…
Hatch would give Mason 1,400 prisoners that were of the Union that were held in Confederate camps as seen above. The U.S government would offer $2.75 for a single drafted man and $8 for a captain of a steamboat who would take a group of men up north.
Hatch knew Mason was in need of money so he offered 1,400 of these prisoners to Mason, which he quickly accepted. After this deal, Sultana left from Vicksburg down to New Orleans, spreading the news of the presidents assassination along the way. On April 21st, Sultana left from New Orleans to receive the offer of 1,400 prisoners from Hatch. Sultana held about a crew of 85 and some livestock.
Ruins of a Boiler Explosion
Just 10 hours south of Vicksburg, Mississippi, one of the boilers of Sultana sprang a leak. Slowly and under more pressure, it reached Vicksburg and it was ready to get its promised load of prisoners. When it reached Vicksburg, a mechanic came to repair the leak and the prisoners from the camp came down to enter Sultana. The mechanic suggested cutting out and and replacing a fractured seam, but Mason knew it was not the way. That kind of repair would take a couple or few days, this would cost him his prisoners who would probably gone on other boats.
Mason and Nathan Wintringer, his chief engineer, convinced the mechanic that temporary repairs would be the better way. The process was done by hammering back the swelling plate of the boiler plate and taking a minor width and placing it over the seam, this one took one day, and not a few. Sultana took on the prisoners in the repair.
Only 1,400 prisoners were expected, but there was a unexpected mix up. The Sultana’s lawful capacity was only 376. Captain George Augustus Williams had been involved as the main source in the mix up by rumors of bribery by other steamboat captains and other theorized reasons. When Sultana left on April 24th out of Vicksburg, it had 2,200 prisoners on board, 22 guards, and 120 paying passengers, mostly made up of mothers and children.
So, the Sultana was severely overcrowded and at great risk. Sultana traveled upriver with hard work by the crew for two days, challenged by floods. On April 26th it arrived in Helena, Arkansas, where a photographer took a picture of the boat and the mass numbers of passengers, seen in the second picture. Later at 7:00 PM it arrived in Memphis, Tennessee, unloading around 120 tons of sugar. At midnight, it left Memphis and left around 200 men behind. It went back upriver to take a fresh load of coal, and at 1:00 PM went up north once more.
One hour later, at 2:00 PM, both of its boilers exploded, one second apart from each other. They were seven miles north of Memphis. The explosion destroyed crowded decks above and crumbled the pilothouse, leaving it with no pilot. Sultana was drifting and burning, chaos was erupting and passengers were flung by the eruption over into the water.
Two smokestacks were completely destroyed, one fell and hit a bell of the ship. The forward part of the upper decks fell down into the middle deck and left, killing many and leaving many trapped. Exposed furnace boxes lit the flames and let them spread, survivors became weak and drowned in the water.
All in all, the Sultana explosion was catastrophic and destructive leaving over 1,800 dead, whether killed in the fire, drowned and affected by hypothermia. There was some survivors, about 760, who were medically treated and mostly all saved.
Private Charles M Eldridge was the last survivor, being born in 1845 and dying in 1941, reaching the old age of 96. He and only one other man, who died in 1939, were the last to visit reunions. To think that this man lived 76 years after the disaster and lived a long life is incredible.
Overall, it ended with notices of people calling from the water, heard by people at the Memphis waterfront at around 2:30 AM, a half hour after the chaos had ended. Vessels and warships came to the rescue and saved the people for many hours. The Sultana explosion is not known by many, of course overshadowed by what happened in that same month, President Lincoln’s assassination. It was a great tragedy, one that killed many people, lost in fire and water of the terrible event of the 1800s.