This explosion killed more people than was killed when the Titanic sank.
Over 1000 soldiers killed by greed.
Most Americans would say that the country’s worst maritime disaster was the sinking of the Titanic. According to some estimates, however, the explosion of the Sultana steamboat had more victims – most of them soldiers of the American Civil War.
The sidewheel steamboat was built for cotton trade along the Lower Mississippi. For two years she ran between St. Louis and New Orleans, often transporting troops for a commission. On April 15, 1865, she was at Cairo, IL, when word of Lincoln’s assassination reached the city. The ship’s captain, James Cass Mason, bought up a large amount of newspapers and headed south, knowing that wartime damage to telegraph cables meant many Southern areas wouldn’t have heard the news.
When Mason reached Vicksburg, MS, he was approached by Lieutenant Colonel Reuben Hatch, the Army’s chief quartermaster there. Thousands of Union POWs had been recently released from Confederate prison camps and the Army was trying to get them to their homes in the North, paying civilian captains $4 for each private and $10 for each officer they took onboard. The 260-ft-long Sultana was only designed to carry about 375 passengers but Mason and Hatch made a private agreement: Hatch would load about 1,400 soldiers onboard in exchange for a kickback from the commission.
Before taking on the passengers, Mason quickly sailed to New Orleans to spread the news of Lincoln’s death and take on some extra passengers and livestock. During this detour, one of the ship’s four steam boilers sprung a leak. Back in Vicksburg, a local mechanic wanted to replace the entire faulty seam. Mason knew that the repair would take days, meaning that the passengers and the commission would go to some other captain. Therefore, he convinced the man to only rivet on a patch as a temporary fix.
Due to a mix-up of parole camp records and a local officer fearing that other captains might offer bribes to take on passengers, and possibly not knowing that Mason himself was involved in such an agreement, around 2,000 Union soldiers were crowded onto the Sultana rather than the agreed-upon 1,400, loading the ship five times over her legal capacity. The overloading was so bad that the decks started to creak and sag in places and had to be supported by wooden beams.
The ship left Vicksburg on the night of April 24, 1865. Spring thaws caused the Mississippi to flood and the boat’s engines had to labor harder than usual to go against the increased current while carrying the extra load.
Two hours after midnight on April 27, seven miles above Memphis, the faulty boiler exploded from too much pressure and low water. Two of the three remaining boilers followed suit in a split second. The massive explosion tore upwards at a 45° angle, going through several decks crowded with soldiers. Many passengers were killed immediately, while others were thrown through the air into the flooded river or scalded by water from the boilers. The ship’s smokestacks toppled over, crushing men on the upper deck to death. A part of the upper decks collapsed into the furnace boxes below and the superstructure was engulfed in an inferno.
Men jumped overboard but many were too sick and weakened after their harrowing stay at Confederate prison camps and drowned. The flooded river, overflowing its banks, was three miles wide, putting dry land very far even for the survivors who were stronger and were able to swim.
About an hour after the explosion, a southbound steamer appeared on the scene and started pulling men out of the water. Meanwhile, bodies floating downriver alerted Memphis and civil boats as well as warships left harbor and raced to assist. Locals quickly fashioned rafts and joined in. Due to the hurry, rescued men were sometimes only taken to the nearest half-submerged tree and left in the canopy, so the rescuers could turn around and save more. Many of the rescuers were former Confederate soldiers who, just a few weeks earlier, were still the mortal enemies of the men they were now saving.
The exact death toll will probably never be known but estimates range from 931 to around 1800. One particular report by the U.S. Customs Service counts it as 1,547. If correct, this estimate makes the disaster the deadliest U.S. maritime disaster, exceeding even the 1,517 deaths caused by the sinking of the Titanic. At the time, news of the event was overshadowed in the press by the end of the war, the assassination of President Lincoln and the death of John Wilkes Booth. Consequently, the needless death of so many American soldiers, killed by greed, remains relatively unknown even today.
No one was ever held accountable for the tragedy. A Union officer who sent the soldiers from a parole camp to Vicksburg was at first charged and found guilty, but was later exonerated because he wasn’t involved with the loading of men on the Sultana in any way. The officer who actually had the soldiers board the vessel was found not guilty. Colonel Hatch, who conspired with Mason for the kickback, quickly resigned from service and as a civilian was no longer under the jurisdiction of a military court. Mason, the unscrupulous captain of the Sultana, died in the disaster.
You can learn more about the lesser-known stories surrounding the War Between the States on our American Civil War Tours.