It was April of 1865. The Civil War was newly ended, and steamboats were regularly traveling up the Mississippi River to take soldiers back to their homes. One such steamboat, the Sultana, left Vicksburg on April 24 to carry soldiers up to Cairo, Illinois. Tragically, just three days later, the boat caught fire and more than 2000 passengers had an impossible choice to make: burn to death on the boat or jump overboard and risk drowning. More than 1800 people died that day, but to this day, no one knows conclusively what caused the explosion. Was it an accident? Or was it an act of sabotage, one final blow struck by the Confederacy against the Union?
History Detectives - PBS
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, she 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 her time in port, men tried to muscle, bribe, and threaten their way on board, until the boat was bursting at the seams with soldiers. More than 2,000 men crowded aboard.
Most of the new passengers were Union soldiers, chiefly from Ohio and just released from Confederate prison camps such as Cahawba and Andersonville. The U.S. government had contracted with Sultana to transport these former prisoners of war back to their homes. With a legal capacity of only 376, she was severely overcrowded. Many of the passengers had been weakened by their incarceration and associated illnesses. Passengers were packed into every available space, and the overflow was so severe that the decks were completely packed.
The cause of the explosion was too much pressure and low water in the 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 boat. The forward part of the upper decks collapsed into the exposed furnace boxes which soon caught fire and 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, coming downriver on her maiden voyage, which arrived at about 3:00 am, an hour after the explosion, and overtook the burning wreck to rescue scores of survivors. The hulk of the Sultana drifted about six miles to the west bank of the river, and sank at around dawn near Mound City and present-day Marion, Arkansas. Other vessels joined the rescue, including the steamers Silver Spray, Jenny Lind, and Pocohontas, and the Navy tinclad Essex and the 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 boat. Many died of drowning or hypothermia. Some survivors were plucked from the tops of semi-submerged 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 700 survivors, many with horrible burns, were transported to hospitals in Memphis. Up to 200 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 her victims have been erected at Memphis; Muncie, Indiana; Marion; Vicksburg; Cincinnati; Knoxville; Hillsdale, Michigan; and Mansfield, Ohio.
The exact death toll is unknown. Estimates range from 1,300 to 1,900, higher than the Titanic disaster on the North Atlantic 47 years later. The official count by the United States Customs Service was 1,800. Of the total casualties, Ohio lost the most of any state, with 791 dead. Indiana lost 491 persons, with Kentucky suffering 194 dead. It is estimated that of the Ohio casualties, over fifty were Cincinnatians. Final estimates of survivors were between 700 and 800. Many of the dead were interred at the Memphis National Cemetery.
The episode of History Detectives, which aired (on PBS) on July 2, 2014, reviewed the known evidence and then focused on the question of why the steamboat was allowed to be crowded to several times its normal capacity before departure. The report blamed a Quartermaster named Reuben Hatch, an individual with a long history of corruption and incompetence, who was able to keep his job due to political connections: Among others, he was a close relative of Illinois politician Ozias M. Hatch. Reuben Hatch had authorized the large crowd of soldiers, garnering a ten-dollar fee for every soldier boarded on the steamboat.
President Abraham Lincoln, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and General of the Army Ulysses S. Grant were also implicated, as they wrote letters whitewashing Reuben Hatch's incredible and lengthy record of criminality and irresponsibility in his duties as an Army quartermaster. The letters reside in the National Archives in Washington DC. Hatch refused three separate subpoenas to appear before Congress and give testimony before dying in 1871, having escaped justice due to his numerous highly placed patrons - including two Republican presidents.