The worst maritime tragedy in American History happened at 2:00 a.m. April 27, 1865, on the Mississippi River near Memphis, Tennessee when a 260 foot wooden hulled, 3 story steamboat named Sultana exploded. There were 6 times more people on board than the carrying capacity of 376. By comparison, the Titanic was 882 feet long and 11 stories high and carried 2227 people. An estimated 1,800 of Sultana's 2,427 passengers died when three of the boat's four boilers exploded and she sank near Memphis, Tennessee. This disaster was overshadowed in the press by other recent events. John Wilkes Booth, President Lincoln's assassin, was killed the day before.
The wooden steamboat was constructed in 1863 by the John Litherbury Boatyard in Cincinnati, Ohio and intended for the lower Mississippi cotton trade. Registering 1,719 tons the steamer normally carried a crew of 85. For two years, she ran a regular route between St. Louis and New Orleans, frequently commissioned to carry troops during the Civil War.
Under the command of Captain J. C. Mason of St. Louis, Sultana left New Orleans on April 21, 1865, with 75 to 100 cabin passengers, deck passengers, and numerous head of livestock bound for market in St. Louis. At Vicksburg, she stopped for a series of hasty repairs to the boilers and to take on more passengers. Rather than have a bad boiler replaced, a small patch repair was made to reinforce a leaking area. A section of bulged boiler plate was removed, and a patch of lesser thickness than the parent plate was riveted in its place. This repair took about one day, whereas a complete replacement of the boiler would have taken about three days, more time than Captain Mason wanted to spend.
Most of the new passengers were Union soldiers, most from Ohio and just released from Confederate prison camps such as Cahawba and Andersonville. The U.S. government had contracted with Sultana to transport these former prisoners of war back to their homes. Many of the passengers had been weakened by their incarceration and associated illnesses. Some had family members traveling with them. Passengers were packed into every available space, and the overflow was so severe that the decks were completely packed, making the boat very top heavy.
Initially the cause of the explosion was thought to be sabotage. It was believed a "coal torpedo" had been shoveled into the boiler's furnace. But the cause was too much pressure and low water in the boiler. There was reason to believe allowable working steam pressure was exceeded in an attempt to overcome the spring river current. The boiler (or boilers) gave way when the steamer was 7 to 9 miles (11 to 14 km) north of Memphis at 2:00 am.
The enormous explosion flung some of the passengers on deck into the water, and destroyed a large section of the boat. The forward part of the upper decks collapsed into the exposed furnace boxes which soon caught fire and soon turned the remaining superstructure into an inferno, the glare of which was visible as far away as Memphis.
Passengers who survived the initial explosion had to risk their lives in the icy spring runoff of the Mississippi or burn with the boat. Many died of drowning or hypothermia. Some survivors were plucked from the tops of semi-submerged trees along the Arkansas shore. Bodies of victims continued to be found downriver for months, some as far as Vicksburg. Many bodies were never recovered. Sultana's officers, including Captain Mason, were among those who perished. About 700 survivors, many with horrible burns, were transported to hospitals in Memphis. Up to 200 of them died later from burns or exposure.
A complete list of soldiers and other passengers on the Sultana can be found at:
This is a link to the Descendants' Association newsletter:
Profiles to be added to this project can include casualties, survivors, or anyone connected to the tragedy. Important profiles include:
- Capt. J.C. Mason
- Col. Reuben Benton Hatch (quartermaster responsible for the overloading of Sultana)
- Rev. Chester D. Berry (survivor and book author)
A partial list of survivors can be found at:
Survivors and casualties can be found at: