The Worst Maritime Disaster in U.S. History

April 27, 2015 marks the 150th anniversary of the explosion and subsequent sinking of the steamboat Sultana. Death toll estimates range from 1,700 to 1,800 people, making the wreck of the Sultana one of the worst shipwrecks in American history. The number of lives lost far exceeds the death toll from the sinking of the Titanic, which killed 1,512 people; yet, few have even heard of the Sultana shipwreck.

The passengers aboard the Sultana were former Union soldiers freshly released from Confederate prison camps. The Civil War had ended just 18 days earlier, and these men–weak, malnourished, and suffering from various ailments–were desperate to get back to their families. Steamboat companies were offered $5.00 per soldier and $10.00 per officer for each man transported back to the North. As a result, many companies were eager to load their ships beyond capacity in order to make maximum profit. The Sultana had a legal carrying capacity of 376 passengers, but there were over 2,500 men on board at the time of the wreck.

News coverage of the shipwreck is difficult to find. It occurred at a time when the country was deep in mourning over the loss of President Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln’s assassination was still splashed across the front pages of newspapers, along with the progression of his funeral train from Washington D. C. to Springfield, Illinois and coverage of the capture and shooting of John Wilkes Booth. It seemed that the country could handle no more tragedy, and thus, the Sultana shipwreck slipped silently by, nearly unnoticed.

Front cover of Harper's Weekly from May 20, 1865.
Front cover of Harper’s Weekly from May 20, 1865.

However, it was mentioned in a few periodicals. The May 20, 1865 edition of Harper’s Weekly opens with more coverage of Lincoln’s assassination and funeral on the front page, and much of the content within is dedicated to various aspects of the assassination. Finally, 10 pages in, there is an illustration of the Sultana shipwreck. The illustration is interspersed amongst other illustrations, which depict things like Lincoln’s Springfield home, more coverage of his funeral, and of another burning ship in New Orleans. There is no text to go along with the illustration of the Sultana, only a grim picture of a ship engulfed in flames surrounded by hundreds of bodies grasping for safety but finding their hands empty as the icy waters of the Mississippi pulled them down.

Illustration of the Sultana Shipwreck from Harper's Weekly.
Illustration of the Sultana Shipwreck from Harper’s Weekly.

A short article on the wreck was published in the May 6, 1865 Daily Morning Chronicle out of Washington, D. C., 9 days after the wreck occurred. It opens with the assumption that most readers had already encountered reports of the tragic incident elsewhere. The snippet blamed the crash on a “torpedo which, shaped like a lump of coal, was thrown into the furnace with the fuel, and immediately exploded.” However, the real cause of the explosion was a faulty repair to one of the boilers. The repairman explained to the captain that it would be unwise to continue traveling upriver with a damaged boiler, but the captain ignored his warning and pushed north. When the damaged boiler could no longer withstand the pressure of moving against the strong current of the flooded Mississippi, it exploded, taking the other two boilers with it.

The Daily Chronicle. May 6, 1865.
The Daily Chronicle. May 6, 1865.
"The Sultana Disaster." From The Daily Chronicle, May 6, 1865.
“The Sultana Disaster.” From The Daily Chronicle, May 6, 1865.

 

 

 

 

 

When the boilers exploded, men were flung from the decks, and many drowned in the icy waters of the flooded river. Others died from the explosion or in the subsequent fire that consumed the ship. Of the 2,500 men on board, only 25 survived, and those that did, owed their lives to the compassion of members of a nearby town, Marion, Arkansas, which had been part of the Confederacy during the war. The Fogelman family and others put together log rafts and paddled out to rescue the remaining 25 men from the burning decks of the Sultana, and former Confederate soldiers pulled men from the frigid water onto the banks. Although the Sultana shipwreck was a horrific incident, the effort of Confederates to rescue Union soldiers from the wreck was the beginning of the reunification of the United States.

For more information, check out this NPR story: The Shipwreck That Led Confederate Veterans To Risk All For Union Lives.

Erika L. Jenns

Graduate Student in English & Library Science