Most people have heard of ship disasters like the sinking of the Titanic and the attack against Lusitania, but there are a number of equally disastrous (and deadly) ship wrecks that seem to have been largely forgotten, or in any case they are not nearly as well known as some shipwrecks for a variety of reasons, some of which are not entirely clear. One such example involves the SS Sultana. The explosion of the Sultana is the deadliest shipwreck in U.S. history. About two thirds of the 2,400 passengers on board died when one of the Sultana’s poorly repaired boilers exploded. The explosion occurred on April 27, 1865, and since the Civil War had ended the previous week, many of the passengers on board were Union soldiers fresh out of Confederate prison camps. Below you will find the key information about the Sultana explosion, as well as a brief explanation for why this particular ship disaster failed to gain as much notoriety as other ship disasters of comparable proportions.
[NOTE: Why is this article about the sinking of a vessel that is not a cruise ship on a site that is about pleasure cruises? Because we had such an overwhelmingly positive response to our articles about the sinkings of the Titanic, the Lusitania, and others, that we realize our readers are interested in this subject, and we aim to oblige.]
The Sultana was a wooden steamboat that traveled up and down the Mississippi River. The ship was constructed in Cincinnati in 1863 and was primarily built to serve the Mississippi cotton trade. The Sultana’s standard route ran between New Orleans and St. Louis, and given the two years in which it operated, it was frequently commissioned to carry soldiers involved in the Civil War.
Six days before the disaster, the Sultana left New Orleans bound for St. Louis with only around 100 passengers on board. A little way into the journey, the ship stopped for repairs in Vicksburg, Mississippi. One of the ship’s boilers was leaking, and rather than replace the boiler, repairmen merely patched it with a plate that was not of adequate thickness. During the time of the repairs, the ship took on a prodigious load of new passengers, most of whom were Union soldiers. These soldiers had just been released from Confederate prison camps and were looking to make their way back North. The ship was only designed to hold 376 passengers, but more than 2,000 people jammed onto the vessel.
At about 2:00 AM on April 27, 1865, the faultily repaired boiler gave way, causing a huge explosion that destroyed much of the ship and hurled many of the passengers from the deck. Hot coals from the explosion caused the remaining portion of the ship to catch on fire, and the raging flames could be seen as far away as Memphis, which was about seven miles south of the disaster. Passengers who had not been flung from the ship were forced to either stay on the flaming steamboat or jump into the river, which was ice-cold due to spring runoff. Not surprisingly, many passengers died from drowning or hypothermia, although around 700 to 800 passengers managed to survive thanks to several ships in the area that helped with the rescue operation. Many of the passengers who did survive were maimed by severe burns.
Despite the massive death toll of the disaster, the Sultana explosion was partially overlooked because of its close temporal proximity to other major historical events. As mentioned, the Civil War ended the week before the explosion occurred, and moreover John Wilkes Booth, the man who murdered Abraham Lincoln, was killed the day before the disaster took place. The shipwreck therefore did not receive as much press coverage as it might have otherwise been afforded in less historically consequent times. Of course, the lack of news play in no way diminishes the tragic nature of this horrific event, and the Sultana explosion ought to remembered along with all the other great ship disasters that have plagued humankind from our earliest forays into the untamed waters of planet earth.