Little Bits of History

Sultana

Posted in History by patriciahysell on April 27, 2010

Depiction of the crowded Sultana exploding

April 27, 1865: The steamboat Sultana‘s boiler explodes while carrying Union soldiers home after the end of the Civil War. Many of the soldiers had been held in Andersonville, the worst POW camp of the war. About one-third of prisoners held at Andersonville died of exposure, malnutrition, or disease. Henry Wirz, the commander of the camp, is the only Confederate officer to be tried and found guilty of war crimes.

Sailing was delayed until the Mississippi River was past flood stage after the winter melt runoff swelled the mighty river. The ship’s trip started in New Orleans on April 21 with between 75 and 100 passengers and livestock on the way to St. Louis. The boiler was known to be in poor repair, but the trip was made regardless. The Sultana stopped in Vicksburg, Mississippi for some repairs to the faulty boilers and to take on more passengers. The repair to the boiler removed a section of bulging material and replaced it by welding on a new section of lesser thickness than the rest of the boiler, creating a weak point. A new boiler replacement would have delayed the trip by three days. Captain J.C. Mason did not want to lose the time making adequate repairs.

Most of the passengers on this ship were still in poor health from the POW camp. They were crammed onto the Sultana and headed up the river. The legal capacity of the boat was 376, but on this trip about 2,400 were on board. More than two thousand soldiers, eager to return home, were crammed into every available nook and cranny of the ship at Vicksburg. The US government had contracted with the Sultana to return newly released prisoners of war to their homes.

Just north of Memphis, Tennessee, at about 3:00 AM, the boiler exploded. The shockwave sent many of the men crowded on deck into the water. Hot coals rained down on top of them and many were trapped onboard the ship as it burnt. Some had the choice of staying on the ship or jumping into the overflowing freezing river. Many men died of either hypothermia or by drowning. About 500 men were pulled from the river, about 200 of them subsequently died. No exact death toll is possible, but it is assumed that about 1,700 to 1,800 died in the disaster.

“The United States lost more men from battle wounds and disease in the Civil War than in any other war of its history, including the Second World War. The battle front stretched from Pennsylvania to New Mexico, and included also the seven seas.” – Richard Weaver

“We have met the enemy and they are us!” – Walt Kelly

“You are sad because they abandon you and you have not fallen.” – Antonio

“All say, ‘How hard it is that we have to die’ – a strange complaint to come from the mouths of people who have had to live.” – Mark Twain

Also on this day, in 1667 John Milton got a publisher for Paradise Lost.

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