Steamboat Sultana: The Maritime Disaster Nobody Cared About Because Abraham Lincoln
When the explosion pitched passengers from the deck of Sultana into the blackness of night, the first suspicion anyone had was sabotage. Someone must have snuck a coal torpedo into the furnace.
The Civil War was over, but there were plenty of disgruntled losers between New Orleans and St Louis, plus the ship was full of homebound Union soldiers.
Recorded as the worst maritime disaster in U.S. history, the Sultana exploded and sank April 27th, 1865. Some 1,700 people died on the Mississippi River when it went down. Titanic killed 1,500.
So close to shore, in chilly but not iceberg water, the Sultana tragedy begs the question: how?
The bizarre side note that kept this accident from the headlines was another historic event which happened days before. On the 14th, a man named John Wilkes Booth had shot the president.
In 1863, the John Litherbury Boatyard in Cincinnati built and launched the Sultana, an all wood steamboat in the fashion of 19th-century steamboats.
These were the luxury commuter transports of their day, slower than trains, but smooth. They were also good for hauling goods or livestock.
The Sultana was to transport people and items related to the cotton industry, connecting St. Louis and New Orleans, with all potential points in between, towns like Vicksburg.
Steamboat Sultana was big, 1,719 tons, but it could run with a crew of only 85. For two years the Sultana ran a successful commute on the Mississippi, often helping move troops.
There has always been money to be made in war.
Captain J. Cass Mason left New Orleans on the 21st with about 100 passengers and some livestock aboard the Sultana.
As far as he saw things, he’d done right by the Union. He’d spread the news of Lincoln’s assassination as far as New Orleans and was now en route to pick up Union POWs to take them home.
It all would work out well be because he had to stop in Vicksburg to repair one of the boilers anyway. Only days before, the Sultana stopped in Vicksburg on the way south.
That day, Lt. Col. Reuben Hatch approached Mason with a bribe. He asked him to cart 1,400 Union soldiers on his way back north, for a handsome fee, of course.
In retrospect, the boiler repair warranted a complete replacement, but that would have stolen three days from the schedule. Mason approved a patch, a choice that would cost him his life.
The ship left Vicksburg that day with a final count of over 2,100 Union POWs on board. Some of them had families members in tow.
The capacity of the steamboat was 376 passengers, but they were carrying 2,427 that day. It would be more appropriate to say “that night,” as it was 2 am when the inciting incident took place; three of the boat’s four boilers exploded.
The blast was so intense, it was visible from nearby Memphis. Almost immediately, the vessel sank. The sinking happened too fast for anyone to react, unlike Titanic which took hours.
Those that weren’t killed in the initial blast or swallowed by the smoke and fire, were powerless as the boat caved into the flaming hole where it took place.
Because many of the soldiers were recently released from camps, they were weak or worse, sick.
Adding to the problem, the Mississippi may not have been as icy as the north Atlantic, but spring runoff had chilled it plenty. Many who survived the fire, died of hypothermia if they didn’t drown.
Exact numbers are hard to know, as the ship was well beyond capacity. We estimate 700 survived, many pulled from the river by former confederate soldiers on the shores of the Arkansas side.
Of those, 200 would later die from their wounds. The survivors did not include the crew. It was so bad, for months, bodies turned up downstream.
Adding to the insanity of this atrocity was that so many of the dead were soldiers who not only survived the war but survived imprisonment, only to die on the way home en masse.
For the families of the afflicted and the dead, there would be no justice. Nobody stood trial.
The country was too wrapped up in the death of Abraham Lincoln. It was as much about the security of the nation after a bitter war, as it was about the death of a great man.
It’s hard to understand that all of those dead people, the most to date from such a tragedy, weren’t enough to outweigh the loss of one man’s life.
In many ways, it’s a comment on how Lincoln’s life was less his own than the nation’s.
In 1982, remnants of the vessel turned up about two miles west of the river. They didn’t blow there and weren’t moved. The Mississippi has shifted that far since the incident.