The Greatest Maritime Disaster in US History: Sultana

Steamboat Sultana Looked Overloaded to Everyone but the Captain

Extremely Overcrowded Steamship Sultana April 26, 1865 near Helena, Arkansas

On this Date in History:  When we think of maritime disaster, one immediately thinks of the RMS Titanic.  After all, there have been numerous movies and documentaries that detail and discuss the incident.  When the news of the Titanic hit the papers, any other news of the day was lost to the backpages and buried.  Hence, when Harriet Quimby became the first woman to fly across the English Channel, she had the misfortune of doing so the day after the Titanic sunk.  She died not too long after and so most Americans think of Amelia Earhart as the first lady of flight.  Back in 1865, the news of the killing of John Wilkes Booth on April 26 dominated the media.  So, when the greatest disaster in maritime history took place, it too was left to the backpages and since, like Harriet Quimby, has been largely lost in the conscience of American history.  Timing, they say, is everythying.

 The steamboat Sultana was steaming north on the Mississippi River shortly after the conclusion of the American Civil War when three of its four boilers exploded. The Sultana was rated to carry a maximum 376 passengers. On the fateful journey, it was overloaded with some 2200 to 2500 former prisoners of war returning home on this date in 1865 along with the crew and some civilian passengers.  The incident occured around 2AM about 7 miles north of Memphis, TN as it moved against the strong Mississippi River current. Many of the passengers were wounded Union soldiers. The deaths of at least 1700 souls was brought about by the fact that the boilers catastrophically failed in the middle of the night, the river current was strong and turbulent and extremely hot water and fire rained on surviors.  Unlike the news of the sinking of the RMS Titanic, the Sultana disaster was relegated to the back pages of most US newspapers.

Andersonville 1864

What adds to the tragedy is that the vast majority of those on-board were Union prisoners of war who had been held in the infamous Andersonville Confederate prison and other prisons such as Cahaba (aka Cahawba).  These soldiers, many wounded and extremely frail from their time in horrid prison conditions, wanted to get home as quickly as possible.  But, it was not just the desire to get home that resulted in the overloading of the boat.  I mean, the Captain could have simply said that his boat was full and told the rest to wait for the next one.  But, the policy of the government in providing transportation was to pay 5$ for each soldier transported.  Keep in mind that most soldiers received about $15 a month while they were fighting so $5 was a pretty good chunk of change.  It was such a good deal for the steamboats that boat captains regularly paid US Army officers $1.15 for every man that officer directed to a particular steamboat.  Bottom line is that the more people a captain could stuff on his boat, the greater his profit.

Andersonville Survivor-Many on the Sultana Were Very Frail

Now, the soldiers were loaded on board in Vicksburg, MS for a trip to Cairo, IL and the Sultana was just one of many boats providing transportation.  It was the chance of a lifetime for steamboat operators and any delay would result in the potential loss of profits.  So, when one of the boilers on the Sultana sprang a leak while in port at Vicksburg,   the captain ordered a patch be put on the leak.  This was a shortcut and perhaps a fatal mistake.  Most researchers suggest that the bulge in the boiler should have been removed and replaced.  But that would have taken about 4 days so the captain went the 1-day patch route.   If he had waited 4 days, other steamboats would certainly have picked up the precious cargo and there would be no way to make up for the loss as this mass transport would happen just once.   Historians Stephen Ambrose and Douglas Brinkley say that the US Army officers knew of the maintanence issues with the Sultana but were eager to get the $1.15 per man kick-back and loaded the unknowing soldiers on board.

On April 24, 1865 at about 9 pm, the Sultana cast off from Vicksburg.  Captain J. Cass Mason, who is described by the US Naval Institute as “respected” but “reckless,  told an army officer that he’d carried that many men in the past and that the boat was sturdy.  Mason was well aware that his boat was extremely overcrowded but did not consider it overloaded.  He assured the officer that the Sultana was a good ship and the men were in very capable hands.   The officer told Captain Moss, “Take good care of them.  They are deserving of it.”    With that, the ship was on its way to Memphis where on April 26, 1865 it stopped to pick up a load of coal.  At around midnight, it cast off again to continue it’s journey.  The repaired boiler exploded about 2 AM on this date in 1865 and the fact that it was only 7 miles upstream illustrates just how slow it was moving.  Between the load it was carrying and the flow of the river against it, it was only able to muscle 3.5 miles per hour.  The strain on the patch was too much.  It exploded and that caused two others to immediately blow up.  Fire raced through the boat, the two smokestacks fell and crushed many on the deck.  Keep in mind that a steamboat boiled water to create the steam so scalding water no doubt affected numerous passengers, many of whom were unable to move due to their condition and were in great pain from their wounds.

The Sultana was but 260 feet long with a draft of just 7 feet.  The RMS Titanic was 882 feet long.  The RMS Titanic had 2223 passengers and 700 survived the sinking while 1517 perished.  The much smaller Sultana carried 2200 to 2500 and 1700 to 1800  were killed in the disaster leaving  500 to 800  to survive initially, but 200 more would die later from their wounds.  The survivors of the Titanic were fortunate in that it was a still night with calm seas, but it was extremely cold and the water was freezing.  The weather conditions of the Sultana disaster weren’t nearly as cold, but the river had a very swift and turbulent current due to spring run-off from melting snow and seasonal rains upriver.  Those who escaped the exlosion had to fight the deadly current.  The boat itself was not completely destroyed in the explosion and fire but the hulk of wreckage floated downstream before ultimately sinking at Memphis where today it rests covered in mud and covered by the Mississippi River.

SPC Severe Probability Thurs AM to Fri AM

12Z Tue GFS Very Bullish for Rain Midday Derby Day

Weather Bottom Line:  I’m not convinced that it’s going to be dry for the Kentucky Derby Forecast.  The longer range models still show disagreement in that the European model keeps big storms several hundred miles to the West on Friday while the GFS has  a cold front draped across St. Louis.   Either way, we will get a warming trend ahead of the system beginning on Wednesday.  Moisture levels will also be increasing as we head to the low to mid 80’s. 

12Z Tue NAM Hold Rain Just West for Oaks Day

I still have an eyebrow raised about the prospects of severe weather around here but I don’t see a kicker.  Further, the GFS vertical profile prog doesn’t really present menacing severe indecies.  However, the GFS does throw out a little more than a half inch of rain for Friday afternoon which may mean we have a questionable Oaks Day Forecast.  I tend to think that we will be okay for Oaks Day.  I”m not sure if the progression will be as slow as the Storms Prediction Center seems to be going with, which is the European solution.  My guess is that the timing of this will be something in between the GFS and European.  Any slow down in the GFS solution will result in a pretty good Oaks Day.  But, the GFS throws out 2 inches of rain in Louisville from 1AM Saturday morning until 7 pm Derby Day.  Even if it’s slower, we get rain and t’storms for the afternoon.  Every model right now throws out some amount of rain for Derby Day.   So, if you are picking a horse early, a good mudder will be a wise decision.  However, I think the wisest thing will be to wait to make your wager.  There is such disagreement with the data that its difficult to really pin down a firm forecast.  While all indications are that we will have low level convergent flow and an increasing jet stream intensity, which would support t’storms, the timing is debatable.  Should that scenario play out and some sort of kicker like a shortwave come through the flow, then we’re talking severe potential.  I have a fair amount of confidence that the rain and t’storm chances will be high for Derby Day.  I feel pretty good about the idea that Oaks Day will be warm, breezy and partly cloudy.  But, there is enough uncertainty that its probably not a good idea to hang your derby hat just yet.


2 Responses

  1. Thank you for putting this tragic and interesting story online, it was brought to my notice by one of my Google alerts (maritime) it is so interesting and different being about a river boat and the links to those awful prison camps that are little known here.
    Could I have your permission to put the story on our site please, we are an ex seamans association, we as 15 &16 year old boys attended the same training ship, i have recently started a page of “maritime tragedies” and would like to show the story of the “Sultana” plus some more of the POW camps.

    Thank you Terry Hales

  2. I appreciate your interest from Down Under. I’ve always enjoyed meeting with Aussie with whom I played Rugby.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: