Saturday, May 11, 2024

The Sultana: The Maritime Disaster the U.S. Forgot - Part II

by Denise Weimer

Last month’s post set the stage for a national disaster, the sinking of the Sultana at the end of the Civil War. The dangerously overcrowded steamer, its boiler recently patched, was carrying around two thousand paroled prisoners of war home on the Mississippi River and had just stopped for coal north of Memphis, Tennessee.

Seven miles upriver, just north of Mound City, Arkansas, at 2 a.m. on April 27, 1865, the first boiler exploded, immediately followed by two more. The blast tore a hole through the main cabin of the boiler deck about a third of the way back, all the way up through the Texas cabin, and blew off the back two-thirds of the pilothouse. Men sleeping near the explosion who were not thrown skyward or outward fell into the open flames of the boiler below. Scalding steam filled the main saloon. The counterweighted paddlewheel housings tilted out. The left smokestack fell onto the forward part of the hurricane deck, while the right fell backward and smashed the remains of the pilothouse. Fire leapt up from the open boilers, spread across the oil-painted wood, and was unable to be extinguished since the fire buckets had been pressed into service for drinking water and slop. The paddlewheels fell away, turning the boat and the direction of the flames.

Passengers searched for anything that would float, including the condemned mules and horses aboard. The scramble for the single lifeboat capsized it. Many who could not swim pushed others underwater in their desperation. Even for those who could swim, the combination of the flooded river’s width and current, its icy temperature, and the eddies and submerged trees and brush along the shores guaranteed great risk.

Gayoso Hospital in Memphis
Many survivors were rescued from the Arkansas shore by former Confederates who had hidden their small watercraft when Union officials had recently destroyed any privately owned vessels. Once local boats got up steam, they joined the rescue efforts. Survivors were taken to private homes and the many army hospitals in Memphis. Bodies washed up all the way down the Mississippi for weeks. Modern historians estimate the death toll at over 1100.

Several investigations into the cause of the disaster were begun. Early interviews and potential evidence pointed to sabotage—specifically, the use of a coal torpedo. The evidence and testimonies that followed seemed to disprove that notion. In 1888, the Memphis Daily Appeal revisited the theory with a sensational article in which a man claimed that Confederate agent and blockade runner Charlie Dale, a.k.a. Robert Lowden/Louden, had confessed to the firing of half a dozen steamboats on the Mississippi during the war, including the Sultana. While many coincidences gave credence to his story, modern historians laid this possibility to rest.

While questions remain as to what did cause the explosion, and a number of factors may have contributed such as the overcrowding and the failure to properly distribute the Sultana’s load, the consensus over time lends toward a combination of the dangerous design of tubular boilers and over-pressurized steam against an inferior quality of iron used in the repair. So many officials were suspected of bribery or negligence that many feel justice was never achieved.

Those wanting to learn more can do so by visiting the Sultana Disaster Museum in Marion, Arkansas,, or by reading the published accounts of the disaster, especially Destruction of the Steamboat Sultana by Gene Eric Salecker and The Sultana Tragedy by Jerry Potter.

Now available as part of Barbour’s Disastrous Days Series, When Hope Sank  

The Civil War took Lily Livingston’s parents, twin brother, and home. She hides her Union loyalties to protect her younger brother while working in her uncle’s riverside inn—and dismisses the threats of a saboteur as bragging. Until the Sultana steamboat explodes in the Mississippi. The fiery explosion threatens to render Andersonville Prison survivor Cade Palmer unable to practice medicine again. But the tender care of the girl who rescues him sparks both faith and romance. When coded messages pass through the inn, Cade and Lily must work together to prevent another tragedy.

Denise Weimer writes historical and contemporary romance from her home in North Georgia and also serves as a freelance editor and the Acquisitions & Editorial Liaison for Wild Heart Books. A wife and mother of two daughters, she always pauses for coffee, chocolate, and old houses.

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