The Sultana, A Forgotten Tragedy

by Terry Hogan

I think there will be very few who read this article who would not be able to recall the name, Titanic. Most will recall the "unsinkable" ship that struck the iceberg in 1912 and sunk. Most will recall a book, a reference to TV news of it being found and revisited under the cold, dark Atlantic waters, and probably the movie that was released in 1997, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. Some will recall the terrible loss of life (1,507 lives)- a major marine, peacetime tragedy.

However, how many know the name Sultana, a tragedy of greater proportion that occurred 138 years ago? It is the worse maritime disaster in our history. It is a story of apparent greed. It is a story of the loss of hundreds of lives. It is a story of pain and suffering heaped upon those who had just been freed from unspeakable pain and suffering. It is a story largely untold, unheard, and unappreciated.

The story of the Sultana is a story that has no clear beginning and no clear ending. But because this is an article, not a book, it will be trimmed tight. I’ll start the story in early 1865. It is America, and the bloody Civil War is, by some definitions, over. On April 9, Lee surrendered to Grant, resulting in the end of most of the Civil War bloodletting. The healing process is about to begin, in an effort to reunite the North and the South. Soldiers will leave the field of battle and return to whatever is left of home. Homes, for some, will be much like they left them. For others, Homes will be burned crops, burned buildings, and an economy and culture forever changed. But without regard to the effect on Home, for most soldiers, they will be forever changed. Changed in a manner that only other soldiers, who saw, participated, and remembered, could understand. In many ways, a side effect of the Civil War may have been to draw the common soldiers, who survived, closer together to one another, without regard to the color of uniform, than to those who were left back home.

Near the end of the war- the early spring of 1865, prisoners of war from each side were being released in a POW exchange program that had existed early in the war, suspended by Grant, and then reinstated. Some went south from camps in Chicago, in Indianapolis and many other places, largely forgotten. Some went north from camps in the South, including the notorious Andersonville and the less well known, Cahaba (Alabama). Near the site of the bloody Vicksburg battle, there was a neutral exchange area where paroled prisoners from the North and the South, were exchanged- names recorded, counted, and freed to go home.

Into this Vicksburg transfer point, came a mass of about 1,100 POWs, released from Cahaba. They arrived on March 11, 1865. They had walked and were transported to Vicksburg, for a promised parole of one-for-one with their POW counterparts, held by the North. General Grant had reinstated paroling, and they were about to be freed. Many were little more than skin and bones, suffering from years of captivity, with insufficient food, water, shelter, and subject to dreadful diseases that killed the weakest. As they approached, they could see Vicksburg, and see a Union army camp, flags waving. The end to suffering and starvation was in sight. The way home was near. Their war, their risk of death, far from home, was about to be over.

They were counted, checked off, and passed on from the control of the South, to the control of the North. Food, medical help, sleep, clothing, and the end of marching was at hand for them at Camp Fisk. They had only to wait for the order to board a steamboat to take them up the Mississippi River toward home.

Steamboat companies were vying for the opportunities to provide transportation for these troops. The U.S. Government had set a fixed price for the transportation of troops - $5/soldier; $10/officer. The more troops loaded onto a steamer, the more money could be made. The soldiers, subject to years of mistreatment, were not inclined to complain. It was still better than what they had been use to, and it was getting them toward home.

Into this setting, the relatively new steamboat, Sultana, became a key player. She was constructed in Cincinnati at the John Lithoberry Shipyard. She was launched on February 4, 1863. She had been designed by Captain Preston Lodwick, and named for her beauty and grace- sufficient to rival a concubine of an "Oriental potentate". As was the custom, her name was boldly painted on the side-wheeler paddle housings. She was well designed for plying the often shallow and always changing Mississippi River. The Sultana was 260 feet long, a beam of 42 feet, having a maximum deck width of 42 feet. She had a flat bottom, and was equipped with the relatively new coal-burner boilers that produced steam to drive her paddlewheels. Coal allowed for less frequent re-fueling stops, thus giving these steamers an advantage over the older wood-burning paddlewheelers. She had four high-pressure boilers that were horizontal, 18 feet long and 46 inches in diameter. The boilers provided the energy to drive an engine with 25-inch diameter cylinders, having 8-feet long strokes that drove the side-paddle wheels.

On April 14, Good Friday in 1865, the Sultana was at the wharf of Cairo, Illinois, perhaps a suitable place, given her name. In Washington, President Lincoln was at the Executive Mansion (the White House), working at the never-ending tasks of running a country still torn apart in every reasonable way of measurement. He was to leave later, and attend his last effort to escape from the burden of work. He was to attend the near-by Ford’s Theater to watch a comedy, "Our American Cousin".

Newspapers that had been reporting the joys of the end of the war, would soon have to report the death of Lincoln, shot at Ford Theater, to die a matter of hours later. The Cairo newspaper was to report the departure of the Sultana from Cairo for New Orleans. Under the steamboat notices, it reported: "The regular and unsurpassed passenger packet ‘Sultana,’ in command of Capt. J. Cass Mason, departs tomorrow morning at 10 o’clock for New Orleans, Memphis and all way landings. The ‘Sultana’ is a good boat, as well as a fleet one."

On the return north from New Orleans, the Sultana had to deal with the flooding of the Mighty Mississippi. Water velocities were greater, slowing the Sultana’s advance toward Vicksburg. En route, one of the boilers developed a leak, necessitating a stop at Vicksburg to have the boiler patched. It was a soft patch, made of slightly thinner metal than the rest of the boiler wall. It was, what might be called, a "quick fix" but this was not uncommon at this point of steamboat history.

While at Vicksburg, the Sultana’s captain was advised of the potentially very profitable opportunity to take ex-POWs on board for delivery at Cairo, Illinois. Two steamers, the Henry Ames and the Olive Branch, had already loaded about 1,300 and 700 soldiers, respectively, and were already steaming up the river. Both of these loads were well in excess of these vessels’ passenger carrying capacities, but profits were high, passengers were motivated to go home, and the army needed to keep the troops moving. However, more soldiers were available for the Sultana.

The troops to be loaded for the Sultana were POWs released from Andersonville and Cahaba, described as "living skeletons ransomed from hell". They were on the portal to the last trip home - to be taken from Vicksburg to Cairo. The POWs sent to Vicksburg for exchange were Northern troops captured in the "Western Theater" and were thus from units originating in Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, Iowa, Ohio, and Tennessee rather than the eastern states. These troops were to be sent to Benton Barracks, near St. Louis, or Camp Chase, Ohio.

These ex-POWs from the western states were loaded onto the Sultana. More and more came, until every square foot of space was taken. But these men had suffered far worse in POW camps and being crowded on an open steamboat deck, subject to the elements for a few more days, was little to suffer. They boarded, settled-down the best they could, and waited for Cairo to appear on the horizon. Troops from the 137th Illinois, 18th Michigan 16th Ohio, 40th Indiana, 50th Ohio, 64th Ohio, 100th Ohio, 102nd Ohio, 104th Ohio, and the 9th Indiana Calvary, boarded the Sultana. In addition, Company K of the 58th Ohio, in uniform and armed, boarded to escort the ex-POWs who were bound for Camp Chase, Ohio.

Each man had his story. Each is worth writing and recording for history. But one might suffice here. Captain A. C. Brown had been the company commander of Company I, 2nd Ohio Infantry. He was captured in the second day of battle at Chickamauga, September 20, 1863. From then on, he had been a POW, and had been at camps at Belle Isle, at Richmond, VA, and at the infamous Andersonville. In his 19 months of captivity, his weight had dropped from about 175 pounds, to about 100 pounds.

The Sultana became loaded, then overloaded, and then grossly overloaded. It was obvious to even the most casual observer that these troops were being subjected to a cattle-car like shipment. But the ex-POWs were going home. They did not rise in rebellion to their treatment. The Sultana was registered to carry a maximum of 376 people. She took on over 2,000.

When the Sultana left Vicksburg, steaming out into the flow of the Mighty Mississippi after midnight, she was loaded with a motley mix of abused soldiers who wanted only to go home as soon and as quickly as possible. At $5/soldier, the Sultana was willing to take all who could be packed aboard. The Sultana was so overloaded that the crew had to beef up the sagging promenade deck.

With historical luck, the Sultana pulled briefly into Helena, Arkansas on the morning of April 26th, about 30 hours after leaving Vicksburg. There, a photographer, T. W. Banks, at Helena saw the overloaded Sultana. He set up his tripod and camera and took a photograph. In about an hour, the Sultana was back on the river, challenging the flooded Mississippi, as it steamed toward Cairo, Illinois. This lucky convergence of Sultana and photographer documents the overcrowding of the Sultana.

The Sultana made a stop at Memphis, where some of the soldiers, against orders, jumped to the docks and visited the city, finding food, drink, and a brief glimpse of near-forgotten normal life. A passenger who boarded the Sultana was Congressman- elect W. D. Snow of Arkansas. He was to recall later that he saw the Sultana’s books which recorded that is was carrying 1,966 enlisted men, 36 officers, 85 crewmen, the Ohio guard company, and citizen passengers.

Another passenger that climbed on board the Sultana was Private Epenetus W. McIntosh, of the 14th Illinois. He had dropped off the steamship, Henry Ames, when it had arrived earlier at Memphis. He had failed to return before she steamed off. He slipped on board the Sultana, mixing in with the turmoil of the others, and said nothing. He probably felt pretty lucky to find another steamboat from Vicksburg, loaded with soldiers. Getting home was getting home and one steamboat was about as good as another, he may have figured.

At 1 AM on Thursday, April 27, 1865, the Sultana left Memphis to continue her overloaded trip up river.

At about 1:30 AM, the Sultana’s pilot was carefully passing by a group of islands known as the Hen and the Chickens. He was proceeding with care, given the risk of snags and floating debris associated with the river’s flooded state.

At about 2 AM, the Sultana’s boilers exploded. The sound was heard in Memphis, seven miles away. It is reported that the resulting fire, reflected off of rain clouds, was visible for miles and miles.

The explosion killed hundreds immediately. They were scalded by steam, torn apart by fragments of boiler and boat, and charred by the fireball. Others were blown into the water to drown quickly, or slowly, as conditions and luck dictated. Some hesitated and then decided the dark, flooding river, provided a greater chance of survival than the burning, drifting, and sinking steamboat. However, many were weak from imprisonment, and some could not swim.

By about 3:15 AM, the steamship Bostonia No. 2 was upstream of Sultana, heading downstream. The pilot observed a bright glow in the sky. The Bostonia’s pilot concluded that it was probably a forest fire. As the Bostonia traveled closer to the Sultana, it rounded a bend in the river and saw the fire that was Sultana. By the time the Bostonia crew was awakened and on deck, the Bostonia was steaming among the Sultana’s survivors. She passed through the debris and people, anchored, and sent a boat out to begin retrieving those still alive. The Bostonia collected about 100 survivors before pulling anchor and steaming to Memphis with its collection.

The horror stories of survivors remain to be read. Some found parts of the steamer to hang on to. Others found logs and other flood debris. The river was exceptionally wide due to the flooding. Some survivors clung to the tops of trees, exposed above the flooding waters, only to be attacked by mosquitoes and other biting bugs.

At nearby Mound City, Arkansas, just a small community, the explosion was heard and the fire could be seen. According to witnesses, the glow of the burning Sultana appeared to be floating down river, getting nearer to Mound City. However, Mound City was sparsely populated. None of the residents owned a boat capable of venturing onto the flooding river.

The Sultana had no, or one metallic, lifeboats of her own - historical accounts differ. However, a lifeboat on the Sultana may or may not have saved lives, depending upon its location when the explosion and fire occurred.

It is recorded that steamboats typically tried to beach on to the shore or islands when a boiler exploded. However, the Sultana had no opportunity as the explosion had destroyed the wheelhouse. She and her passengers were left at the mercy of the Mississippi River. And she was showing no mercy.

Help for the survivors was sent as quickly as possible. A military courier boat, General Boynton is generally attributed to making the first report of the Sultana’s loss. It had stopped at Memphis and began its trip upstream and encountered survivors in the river. The General Boynton returned to Memphis to make its report. Three steamers from Memphis were sent out to assist. The Jenny Lind, the Pocahontas and a ferry, Rosadella responded as quickly as their steam boilers allowed. Small boats from the Ironclad Essex, the USS Tyler and the USS Grosbeak also were used to recover those strewn along the Mississippi River.

Of the estimated 2,385 men, women and children aboard the Sultana when she exploded (about 2,200 military and about 185 civilians), published reports indicate that about 1,585 died in this event. Other reports have published slightly different numbers of deaths, such as 1,547 and 1,647, but the exact number will never be known. Survivors quickly left the scene of horror, dead were quickly buried, and fragments of bodies, and whole bodies continued to surface and be discovered long after the destruction of the Sultana. Probably many were never recovered.

It seems that the loss of the Sultana and her passengers received less "coverage" in the media of the day that what might reasonably be expected. However, it has to be remembered that despite the terrible tragedies imposed upon these recently released POWs, the nation was dealing with the end of the Civil War, the assassination of President Lincoln, and his slow train trip home to Springfield, Illinois. There was also the story of the capture and shooting of Booth. The newspaper and the public had become numb to reading about the loss of life. The loss of a President and the shooting of his assassin were preoccupying the public. Additionally, the eastern newspaper’s indifference is perhaps reflected in the New York Times brief treatment, stating that none of the lost soldiers were from units east of Ohio. Harpers Magazine displayed a rendition of the flaming Sultana, but without an accompanying story. This despite the Union loss of life on the Sultana was nearly identical to that of the battle of Shiloh (1,758).

When the survivors finally reached home and mentioned that they were onboard the ill-fated Sultana, they were frequently confronted with ignorance of the event. But perhaps there was a bright note for the survivors who finally did make it to Cairo, Illinois. They were placed on a train bound for Mattoon, Illinois. Mattoon was aware of the tragedy and the city turned out for the train, with food, clothing and shelter. These twice-saved survivors were treated with a warm "home coming" without regard to the location of their home.

Despite the limited newspaper coverage at the time of the disaster, there are Sultana memorials, if you know where to look for them. Some are in unanticipated places, like Muncie, Indiana, remembering those of the 9th Indiana Cavalry who were on board. As one might expect, there are markers in Memphis and Vicksburg. Cincinnati has at least two markers- Cincinnati was the "birth place" of the Sultana. Knoxville, Tennessee has a marker with names of over 365 Tennessee soldiers involved in the Sultana’s sinking.

Of course, there are reports, perhaps claims, that the sinking of the Sultana was not an accident, but rather sabotage by Confederate agents. One such story appeared in the St. Louis Globe Democrat in May 6, 1888. The story reports a claim made by William Streetor that the Sultana exploded as a result of a "torpedo" being placed in a lump of coal carried aboard the Sultana at Memphis. Robert Lowden, who went by the alias of Charlie Dale, according to the article, accomplished this. Robert Lowden told the feat to Mr. Streetor, himself. However, the article notes that Lowden/Dale died of yellow fever, in New Orleans in the late 1860s. It seems that this claim will neither be proved nor disproved, despite on-going disagreements.

Such is the Sultana’s story and the story of hundreds of Union Civil War POWs heading home after their war was to be over. One last comparison with the Titanic may be appropriate. Whereas the Titanic lies beneath the deep, cold, Atlantic, the Sultana sleeps, buried in a field of deposited river silt. The Mississippi River, in its meanderings, has abandoned the Sultana as if to distance itself from any responsibility of the largely forgotten Sultana disaster.

Additional Information:

Ambrose, Stephen. 2001. Remebering (sic) Sultana.

Berry C. 1892. Loss of the Sultana and Reminiscences of Survivors.

Bryant. W. 2001. Cahaba Prison and the Sultana Disaster.

Elliott, James. 1962. Transport to Disaster. Holt, Reinhardt, and Winston.

Rules, D. H. Sultana: A case for Sabotage. In "North & South" magazine, Volume 5, Issue 1.

Salecker G. E. 2002. Disaster on the Mississippi. (reprinted by author).

Sultana Memorials.

Sabotage of the Sultana.

The Boat Burners.

Walker, John. 1910. Cahaba Prison and the Sultana Disaster.