The Forgotten Riverboat Sultana Disaster

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The Riverboat Sultana ablaze on the Mississippi River near Memphis
The Sultana Disaster on the Mississippi River near Memphis, 1865

More souls died on the Riverboat Sultana than the RMS Titanic!

The Sultana disaster is in fact, the worst maritime disaster in United States history.  So why is it such a forgotten piece of American history, with just a few books written and no Hollywood films?  Everyone remembers the Battle of Gettysburg, or the Fall of the Alamo, so why not the Sultana Disaster?  A lot had to do with how the U.S. Civil War ended.  April 1865 was a very eventful month for both the United States and Confederate States of America. 

General Robert E. Lee had surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox in Virginia on April 9th. After 5 bloody years, pitting brothers against brothers, the U.S. Civil War was finally over.  Barely a week later, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on April 14th while attending a performance at Ford Theater in Washington D.C.  The manhunt for his assassin, the actor John Wilkes Booth, ended on April 26th. He was fatally shot by Union troops in a remote Maryland barn. 

The very next day, April 27th, 1865 the Riverboat Sultana exploded in the dead of night on the Mississippi River just north of Memphis, Tennessee.  It sank with over 2,400 souls aboard. They were primarily Union soldiers, prisoners of war happily returning home to the north.  By comparison, 1,517 would die on the Titanic decades later in 1912.  Regardless of the scope of the disaster, Americans were too wrapped up in the end of the War Between the States and the death of their beloved President Lincoln. They took little notice of a Mississippi river boat sinking, no matter how many men were on board.  Few newspapers gave it more than a quick paragraph of mention, and not even on the front page.

But the Riverboat Sultana more than just sank in the Mississippi. 

Its 4 steam boilers exploded violently in the dead of night, quickly engulfing the rest of the wooden boat in a wave of hungry flames.  Survivors not killed instantly by the blast were faced with the terrible choice of burning to death or risk drowning in the dark, cold Mississippi.  And these travelers were no ordinary passengers.  The ship was filled far beyond its legal capacity with over 2,400 people. Most were former Union Prisoners of War who after 4 long years, wanted nothing more than to return home to their loved ones up north. 

Sultana’s legal capacity was only 376 passengers and crew!  Union officers squeezed 2,400 bodies into every square inch of the Sultana’s 4 decks.  Worst still, these poor men had survived the worst POW camps in all the South, the infamous Andersonville and Cahaba Confederate prison camps.  For the last two years of the war, these poor soldiers endured horrific conditions at the hands of the Confederates. They lived in rags, subsisting on scraps, wasting away of starvation, and dying of dreadful diseases like cholera and scurvy. Now, not only were the survivors rescued, they were going home back north.

Why on earth was the Sultana so overcrowded?  It was due to a shady deal between the Sultana’s greedy Captain James Cass Mason and some equally greedy Union officers in Vicksburg. The officers ignored other riverboats in favor of filling the Sultana.  Captain Mason was also part owner of the riverboat. He would be paid $2.75 for each soldier and $8.00 for each officer, so do the math.  The more soldiers he could transport, the richer he would get. 

The newly released prisoners, weakened from disease and malnutrition, were all loaded and squeezed together on the Sultana like hogs in a slaughterhouse.  But remarkably, they were still in good spirits!  After all, the War was finally over and they were finally headed home. 

The Riverboat Sultana left Vicksburg, Mississippi in late April 1865 and traveled north up the twisting, muddy river, already swollen with heavy Spring rains.  The former POWs made the best of their cramped situation. A newspaper photographer in Helena, Arkansas managed to take the only photo of the ridiculously crowded decks.

The only photo of the overloaded Sultana Riverboat, taken the 2 days before in Arkansas
The only existing photo of the overloaded Sultana Riverboat, taken in Helena, Arkansas, 1865

Unfortunately, just prior to leaving Vicksburg, Captain Mason had one of the Sultana’s cracked boilers quickly and cheaply patched with just a small plate. Mason wanted nothing to interfere with his big pay-off of transporting thousands of troops back north. This amounted to a ticking time bomb under the poor soldiers’ feet. Two days later, while the tired men slept, the Sultana‘s cracked boiler exploded at 2 o’clock in the morning at an isolated bend in the Mississippi River, just north of Memphis. 

There were no modern lifeboats and few cork life preservers.  There was no wireless telegraph to call for help.  The boiler explosions blew apart the center of the riverboat. The blast killed hundreds instantly, and the hungry fire spread rapidly. Those that did not burn to death, jumped into the cold, dark river. The Mississippi was turned it into a frothing chaos of weak, drowning men grasping for debris. 

The burning hulk of the Sultana drifted downriver and finally sank in an angry cloud of steam.  It was 2 hours before a southbound riverboat came upon and rescued the floundering survivors. Captain Mason died on board the Sultana. Shockingly, no Vicksburg officers were ever held accountable for the terrible overcrowding.

I was also one of those who had never heard of the Sultana Disaster.  How could that be possible, especially for an American?  These poor men were all but forgotten in history. A few of their ancestor, members of the Sultana Descendants Association, faithfully meet in the Spring each year to keep the memory of their ancestors alive.  A small Sultana Disaster Museum was opened in nearby Marion, Arkansas in 2015 and will soon be replaced by a new, larger location. An excellent documentary of the tragedy, Remember the Sultana, was released in 2018, and is now available to watch on Netflix. 

Thanks to some excellent books by Jerry Potter and Gene Salecker, I was able to thoroughly research the Sultana disaster.  I have since written a historical novel, SULTANA AWAITS to do my own part in making sure those brave men, who sacrificed so much, are never forgotten.  It follows two young Indiana brothers who volunteer to fight for the Union army, and end up prisoners of war in Andersonville and Cahaba.  Then at the end of the Civil War, they wind up in Vicksburg, Mississippi and board the doomed riverboat Sultana.

Experience the Sultana Disaster in the historical novel: SULTANA AWAITS

Published by andrewspaulw

LOST IN HISTORY Blog/Podcast about key forgotten history still relevant in today's world. Paul Andrews also has 5 historical adventure novels, all available on Amazon.

2 thoughts on “The Forgotten Riverboat Sultana Disaster

  1. Hello Paul. I just read your blog about the tragedy of the Sultana. I’ve NEVER even heard of this. I love history, and I know a book on this, written well :-), would be fantastic, and would allow us to peek into what occurred on that tragic day. I’d love to read it. Grace & peace.

    1. Thanks for the post Vanessa. My Sultana novella is coming along nicely and I plan to publish an eBook before the end of the year. Check my site occasionally for updates.

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