J.D.R. Hawkins

One bullet can make a man a hero… or a casualty.

Archive for the tag “Sultana”

Tragedy on the Mississippi


One hundred and fifty years ago today, the worst maritime disaster in U.S. history took place. This little known event happened on the Mississippi River, not long after the Civil War ended. The name of the vessel was the Sultana.

At the close of the war, Union prisoners were released from Southern POW camps. Some of the parolees were transported to Vicksburg, Mississippi, where they awaited their release. Riverboats traveling along the Mississippi River vied for the lucrative opportunity to transport newly released prisoners to their homes in the north, and were paid handsomely by the Federal government. One such vessel, the Sultana, was chosen to transport Andersonville and Alabama prisoners, who were crowded onto the boat, surpassing the 376 person limit.

The boat made its way upriver to Helena, Arkansas, where the above photo was taken. It docked in Memphis, and shortly before 2 a.m., set off for Cairo, Illinois. However, seven miles north of Memphis, the boat suddenly exploded, sending burning prisoners to their deaths or into the icy cold river, which was flooded and swollen with spring thaw. Those who weren’t burned to death or drowned managed to make their way to the riverbanks, and waited for rescue while they watched the unmanned boat spin helplessly in the water, aflame in the night sky. After being rescued, the surviving Union soldiers were taken to hospitals in Memphis. Many succumbed to their wounds, or to their weakened state as POW’s, but some survived. Approximately 1,800 of the 2,427 passengers perished.

Controversy still surrounds the tragedy, including a conspiracy theory that Confederates sabotaged the boat, but this was never proven. It is believed that a faulty boiler actually caused the explosion. Although the riverboat was overloaded, and some people were rumored to have taken bribes, no one was ever held accountable.

Today, there are monuments signifying the event. One is located in Elmwood Cemetery in Memphis. The disaster was overshadowed by President Lincoln’s assassination, as well as the manhunt for his killer, John Wilkes Booth, who was killed the day before in Virginia. The Sultana tragedy was barely reported in newspapers. Americans were tired of war and death, so the horrific event was essentially ignored. It was a terrible ending to a terrible war.

Memphis River City

It is a well-known fact that riverboats were essential to Southern commerce before and during the War Between the States. Southern states used rivers to transport cotton to the north, and one of the most heavily-used rivers was the Mississippi. Old Man River took his share, as there are still many riverboats sunken into the silt of the mighty, muddy Father of Waters.

The Union Army’s primary objective in the Western Theatre was to secure the Mississippi, thus strangling the Confederacy’s ability to trade and ship wares to various states below the Mason-Dixon Line. By the middle of 1863, the Yankees had accomplished this feat by capturing Vicksburg.

At the end of the war, riverboats were used extensively to transport released prisoners. One such boat, the Sultana, has virtually been lost to history, but her story is fascinating. Overloaded to around 2,400, with a maximum capacity allowance of only 376, the boat chugged her way up the Mississippi until it reached Memphis. A few hours later, as she made her way to Cairo, Illinois, carrying POW’s from Andersonville and Catalpa prisons, she exploded. Only a few hundred survived. Known as the worst maritime disaster in North American history, all that remains are a few markers, one of which is located at Elmwood Cemetery in Memphis.

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