Just after the sinking of the Titanic in April 1912, a group of people met in Knoxville, Tennessee. However, they gathered not just to mourn the 1,517 people who died in the tragedy, but also to commemorate a maritime disaster that possibly claimed even more lives. They were survivors of the sinking of the Sultana, a steamboat that exploded and sank on the Mississippi River, just seven miles away from the city of Memphis.
The disaster occurred on April 27, 1865, and resulted in the deaths of anywhere between 1,200 and 1,800 people depending on the account you read. It was the worst maritime disaster in American history at the time yet it garnered relatively little attention. The sinking of the Sultana wasn’t particularly well covered in magazines or newspapers and was quickly forgotten. Even today, the Sultana disaster is seldom mentioned; especially in comparison to the Titanic.
Certainly, April 1865 was among the busiest months in American history regarding newsworthy events. On the 9th, General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse. Five days later, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in Ford’s Theater and on the 26th, the day before the Sultana disaster, John Wilkes Booth, Lincoln’s assassin, was killed. On the very same day, General Joseph Johnson surrendered the final large Confederate Army and the leader of the Confederates, Jefferson Davis, was captured. The U.S. Civil War had ended, and newspapers in the North celebrated.
Greed Leads to Tragedy
All of the above contributed to the Sultana disaster becoming a forgotten story so let’s bring some details to light. The Sultana was a wooden steamboat constructed in 1863 in Cincinnati. It was supposed to be used for the cotton trade on the lower Mississippi River and typically carried a crew of 85 people. The Sultana normally traveled between St. Louis and New Orleans and routinely carried military personnel during the Civil War.
When the Sultana left St. Louis bound for its usual destination, New Orleans, on April 13, 1865, there was no inkling of the tragedy to come. However, news of Lincoln’s assassination caused the boat’s captain, J. Cass Mason, to take the fateful decision to travel south to spread the news since communications were cut off due to the war. When he reached Vicksburg, Mississippi, he was offered a proposition by Lieutenant Colonel Ruben Hatch.
Thousands of Union POW’s that had recently been released from the prison camps of Andersonville and Cahaba needed transport. Hatch told Mason that the Government would pay $10 per officer and $5 per enlisted man to any captain willing to bring them north. Hatch offered to give Mason a full load of 1,400 men in return for a kickback. Mason agreed, and his greed ultimately doomed over 1,500 people.
Thousands of Union POWs gathered at Vicksburg, and a number of steamboats were waiting to bring the men home. The Sultana was the last to leave, and due to a mix-up in the numbers, it ended up carrying at least 2,400 passengers while some reports say there were over 2,500 people on board. This was overcrowding on an astonishing scale since the Sultana had a maximum capacity of 376.
The POWs gladly squeezed on board the Sultana because the discomfort was nothing compared to what they had encountered in Confederate prison camps. Hundreds of POWs were carrying illnesses but had mustered the strength to climb on board while there were also women and children amongst the passengers. The overcrowding was so severe that the decks started to creak and had to be supported by wooden beams. To make matters worse, the boat was fighting against one of the worst spring floods in the Mississippi River’s history as it traveled upriver. In hindsight, a tragedy was inevitable.