On This Day

Sultana explosion, Sultana disaster, Sultana steamer
Associated Press
An artist's illustration from a 19th Century edition of Harper's Weekly shows the sinking of the steamboat Sultana.

On This Day: Steamer Sultana Explodes, Killing Civil War Veterans

April 27, 2011 05:00 AM
by Liz Colville
On April 27, 1865, the steamboat Sultana, carrying an estimated 2,000 Union veterans home in the dying days of the Civil War, exploded near Memphis, killing most of the men on board.

The Sultana Disaster

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The Sultana was a 260-foot-long, 1,719-ton side-wheeler steamboat built in 1863. It regularly traveled along the Mississippi River between St. Louis and New Orleans, and often transported Union military personnel.

On April 21, 1865, the Sultana left New Orleans sailing northward, stopping a few days later at Vicksburg, Miss., where Capt. J.C. Mason had arranged to pick up Union POWs to be taken home. Upon arriving at Vicksburg, the crew discovered that the boilers were leaking badly; Mason ordered a quick fix so as not to delay the trip.

On April 24, hundreds of prisoners arrived in Vicksburg by train and boarded the Sultana. Though the ship had a capacity of 376 passengers, Mason agreed to take 1,300 to 1,400 prisoners. The actual number was even higher, as military officials did not have time to prepare a roll beforehand and allowed prisoners onto the ship without regard for a count.

There were roughly 2,000 prisoners, plus a few hundred crewmembers and civilians on board when the Sultana left Vicksburg. The ill, malnourished and exhausted prisoners were crowded onto the deck, and Mason worried that the boat could capsize if the men crowded to one side.

On the evening of April 26, the boat docked in Memphis, where sugar was unloaded and some passengers disembarked. Another leak in a boiler was discovered, and a repair crew once again fixed it. Leaving Memphis just before midnight, the Sultana crossed the river to pick up coal and headed upstream against a strong current. One boiler again showed signs of trouble and was temporarily repaired.

Rounding a group of islands called the Hen and Chickens, the Sultana exploded. The force of the explosion sent its victims into the water, some saved as they were propelled away from the wreckage or clung to it. The overcrowded upper deck collapsed, trapping hundreds of people below.

There were only 76 life preservers and two lifeboats available, forcing many prisoners to jump into the water and wait for help. Around 500 men were rescued from the shores of the Mississippi and taken to a hospital, where around 200 later died. In all, an estimated 1,700 were killed.

“Queerly enough,” Cedric A. Larson writes in American Heritage, “this overwhelming catastrophe got only a moderate amount of newspaper attention at the time. The nation’s mind was fixed on the closing scenes of the Civil War.”

The boiler explosion is believed to have been caused by a defective boiler that had not been properly repaired. In 1865, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton’s annual report added that the number of deaths on the Sultana was “greatly increased ... by an improper and unnecessary overloading of the boat.”

Headlines in the Memphis Daily Appeal screamed: ‘It was Murder!’ And the newspaper was correct,” writes Jerry O. Potter in American History Magazine. “There was no military reason requiring or justifying the placement of so many soldiers aboard the Sultana. The real cause of the disaster was not the failure of the patch on the boiler, but the conspiracy of greed at Vicksburg that put the quest for profits above the safety of the weary soldiers who thought the horrors of war were behind them forever.”

The Rise of Steamboat Transportation in the U.S.

The first commercially-successful steamship in the United States was the Clermont, launched by engineer and inventor Robert Fulton following a treatise he sent to President George Washington in 1797, proposing the navigation of a canal between Lake Erie and Philadelphia.

Following the successful launch of the Clermont, construction began on the Erie Canal, according to the U.S. Coast Guard in a paper on marine safety in the United States from 1838-1946. After the Clermont, the Savannah tested the limits of steamboat power by successfully crossing the Atlantic, traveling from Savannah, Ga., to Liverpool, England, in 21 days.

The steamboat was both a boon for the economies of port towns and a potentially risky mode of transportation. It carried the regular stigma of water travel, including the potential for “[u]nsanitary conditions” and “incompetent navigation,” but steamboats were also “powered by fire and water pressure,” which “added a new element of danger.” Steamboats were not regulated by the government until dozens of accidents and hundreds of lives had been lost.

The first disastrous steamboat explosion occurred in the boiler of the Washington in 1816. It was the ship’s first run. “Over the next three decades 185 steamboats would blow up on Western waters, as opposed to only 45 throughout the rest of the country. Steamboats were opening up the nation, but at a terrible cost in human lives,” according to John K. Ward in American Heritage of Invention & Technology

In 1824, the Franklin Institute was established in Philadelphia to promote the “mechanic arts” by “extending a knowledge of mechanical sciences to its members, and others, at a cheap rate,” writes Ward. The institute devoted much of its attention to understanding boiler explosions and how to avoid them. However, the explosions continued during the 1820s. Congress started funding experiments conducted by the Institute in 1830 and the institute focused more aggressively on the problem.

Seven years of research and a variety of recommendations led to an 1838 law that required safety tests but did not penalize boats that failed them. But the “1847 to 1852 era was marked by an unusual series of disasters primarily caused by boiler explosions, however, many were also caused by fires and collisions,” the U.S. Coast Guard reports. A more effective bill was the Steamboat Act of 1852, which eventually led to the Steamboat Inspection Service and laid the foundation for today’s U.S. Coast Guard.

Historical Context: The Civil War

The Civil War was drawing to a close when the Sultana exploded. Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia surrendered on April 9, 1865. Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, head of the Army of Tennessee, surrendered on April 26, the largest surrender of the war. Though fighting would continue into June, the surrenders of Lee and Johnston effectively ended the war.

Only two weeks before the Sultana explosion, on April 14, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth.
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