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Tuesday, December 11, 2012

SS Sultana

The ill-fated Sultana photographed near Helena, Arkansas, on or about April 26, 1865.

SS Sultana was a Mississippi River steamboat paddlewheeler that exploded on April 27, 1865 in the greatest maritime disaster in United States history. An estimated 1,600 of Sultana's 2,400 passengers were killed when three of the ship's four boilers exploded and Sultana sank near Memphis, Tennessee. This disaster was overshadowed in the press by other recent events. John Wilkes Booth, President Lincoln's assassin, was killed the day before.

Sultana on fire, from Harpers Weekly.

The wooden steamship was constructed in 1863 by the John Litherbury Shipyard in Cincinnati, and intended for the lower Mississippi cotton trade. Registering 1,719 tons, the steamer normally carried a crew of 85. For two years, the Sultana ran a regular route between St. Louis and New Orleans, frequently commissioned to carry troops.

The tragedy

SS Sultana Memorial at the Mount Olive Baptist Church Cemetery in Knoxville, Tennessee in 2010.

Under the command of Captain J. C. Mason of St. Louis, Sultana left New Orleans on April 21, 1865, with 75 to 100 cabin passengers, deck passengers, and numerous head of livestock bound for market in St. Louis. At Vicksburg, Mississippi, the steamship stopped for a series of hasty repairs to the boilers and to take on more passengers. Rather than have a bad boiler replaced, a small patch repair was made to reinforce a leaking area. A section of bulged boiler plate was removed, and a patch of lesser thickness than the parent plate was riveted in its place. This repair took about one day, whereas a complete replacement of the boiler would have taken about three days. During Sultana's time in port, men tried to muscle, bribe, and threaten their way on board, until the ship was bursting at the seams with soldiers. More than two thousand men crowded aboard.

Historic marker of the Sultana disaster in Marion, AR

Most of the new passengers were Union soldiers, chiefly from Ohio and just released from Confederate prison camps such as Cahawba and Andersonville. The US government had contracted with Sultana to transport these former prisoners of war back to their homes. With a legal capacity of only 376, Sultana was severely overcrowded. Many of the passengers had been weakened by their incarceration and associated illnesses. Passengers were packed into every available berth, and the overflow was so severe that the decks were completely packed.

The cause of the explosion was a leaky and poorly repaired steam boiler. There was reason to believe allowable working steam pressure was exceeded in an attempt to overcome the spring river current. The boiler (or boilers) gave way when the steamer was 7 to 9 miles (11 to 14 km) north of Memphis at 2:00 am. The enormous explosion flung some of the passengers on deck into the water, and destroyed a large section of the ship. Hot coals scattered by the explosion soon turned the remaining superstructure into an inferno, the glare of which was visible as far away as Memphis.

The first boat on the scene was the southbound steamer Bostonia II which arrived at about 3:00 am, an hour after the explosion, and overtook the burning wreck to rescue scores of survivors. The hulk drifted to the west bank of the river, and sank at around dawn near the tiny settlement of Mound City near present-day Marion, Arkansas. Other vessels joined the rescue, including the steamer Arkansas, Jenny Lind, Essex, and the Navy sidewheel gunboat USS Tyler, manned by volunteers. The ship's regular crew had been discharged days before.

Passengers who survived the initial explosion had to risk their lives in the icy spring runoff of the Mississippi or burn with the ship. Many died of drowning or hypothermia. Some survivors were plucked from trees along the Arkansas shore. Bodies of victims continued to be found downriver for months, some as far as Vicksburg. Many bodies were never recovered. Sultana's officers, including Captain Mason, were among those who perished.

About 500 survivors, many with horrible burns, were transported to hospitals in Memphis. Up to 300 of them died later from burns or exposure. Newspaper accounts indicate that the people of Memphis had sympathy for the victims despite the fact that they had recently been enemies. The Chicago Opera Troupe staged a benefit, the crew of Essex raised $1,000, and the mayor took in three survivors.

Monuments and historical markers to Sultana and its victims have been erected at Memphis, Tennessee; Muncie, Indiana; Marion, Arkansas; Vicksburg, Mississippi; Cincinnati, Ohio; Knoxville, Tennessee; Hillsdale, Michigan; and Mansfield, Ohio.


No exact death toll is known. Estimates range from 1,300 to 1,900. The official count by the United States Customs Service was 1,547. Final estimates of survivors were between 700-800. Many of the dead were interred at the Memphis National Cemetery.


The official cause of Sultana disaster was determined to be mismanagement of water levels in the boiler, exacerbated by "careening". Sultana was severely overcrowded and top heavy. As the steamship made its way north following the twists and turns of the river, Sultana listed severely to one side then the other. Sultana's four boilers were interconnected and mounted side-by-side, so that if the ship tipped sideways, water would tend to run out of the highest boiler. With the fires still going against the empty boiler, this created hot spots. When the ship tipped the other way, water rushing back into the empty boiler would hit the hot spots and flash instantly to steam, creating a sudden surge in pressure. This effect of careening could have been minimized by maintaining high water levels in the boilers. The official inquiry found that Sultana 's boilers exploded due to the combined effects of careening, low water level, and a faulty repair to a leaky boiler made a few days earlier.

In 1888, a St. Louis resident named William Streetor claimed that his former business partner, Robert Louden, made a deathbed confession of having sabotaged Sultana by a coal torpedo. Louden, a former Confederate agent and saboteur who operated in and around St. Louis, had the opportunity and motive to attack Sultana and may have had access to the means. (Thomas Edgeworth Courtenay, the inventor of the coal torpedo, was a former resident of St. Louis and was involved in similar acts of sabotage against Union shipping interests.) Supporting Louden's claim are eyewitness reports that a piece of artillery shell was observed in the wreckage. Louden's claim is controversial, however, and most scholars support the official explanation.


An East Tennessee Sultana survivors' group met annually on April 27 until 1928, when four survivors were left. Then on March 4th, 1931 the last survivor Pleasant M. Keeble died at the age of 85.

Remnants Found

In 1982, a local archaeological expedition uncovered what was believed to be the wreckage of Sultana. Blackened wooden deck planks and timbers were found about 32 feet (9.8 m) under a soybean field on the Arkansas side, about 4 miles (6.4 km) from Memphis. The Mississippi River has changed course several times since the disaster. The main channel now flows about 2 miles (3.2 km) east of its 1865 position.


Jay Farrar of the band Son Volt wrote a song called "Sultana", paying tribute to "the worst American disaster of the maritime". Farrar calls the ship "the Titanic of the Mississippi" in the song, which was released on the American Central Dust album.

The Norwegian group Titanic had a hit in 1971 with an instrumental called "Sultana".

The Back Porch Majority performed a song entitled "The Great Sultana" on their album Riverboat Days.

Southaven, Mississippi born singer/songwriter Cory Branan recorded a song titled "Sultana" about the disaster.

Upstate New York singer/songwriter Jeff Stachyra released an album called The Sultana: April 27, 1865 on April 27, 2012. It recounts the days leading up to the disaster as well as the explosion and its aftermath.


The J. Mack Gamble Fund of the Sons and Daughters of Pioneer Rivermen and the Friends and Descendants of the Sultana sponsored a mural by Louisiana artist Robert Dafford and his crew entitled The Sultana Departs from Vicksburg as one of the Vicksburg Riverfront Murals. It was dedicated on April 9, 2005.

External Links

"Sultana Disaster Online Museum & Archives".

"Sultana: Titanic of the Mississippi - Investigation with several videos".

On This Date in 1865: Tragedy on the Mississippi - Sultana Explodes - Thousands Die

Steamboat Sultana: Biographical Information

A Soldier's Story (Sultana Remembered)

Sultana Disaster Records - Records relating to the explosion of the steamer "Sultana," including lists of those aboard the ship.

Sultana at Roots web