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Sinking of the SS Sultana

On April 21, under the command of Captain J. C. Mason of St. Louis, the Sultana, which had accommodations for 376 passengers, left New Orleans for Vicksburg with 100 people, 100 hogs, 60 mules, 100 hogsheads of sugar, and a leaking boiler. In Vicksburg, boilermaker R. G. Taylor told Captain Mason that two metal sheets on one of the ship’s four boilers had to be replaced, but Mason opted to simply patch the boiler in order to save time. Mason demanded a full load of soldiers even though the rosters for each group were not yet prepared. Army officials then agreed that the rosters could be worked out after the soldiers boarded, making it difficult to keep track of how many were being loaded.

The Sultana left Vicksburg on April 24 with about 2,100 troops, 200 civilians, and a full cargo of sugar—more than six times its legal carrying capacity. Soldiers were jammed onto every deck “like sheep for the slaughter,” according to survivor Isaac van Nuys. They spilled out onto the main stairs, with some even sleeping in the coal bin.

On the evening of April 26, the Sultana reached Memphis, unloaded cargo, and then crossed the river to buy coal, despite a strong current caused by the flooded Mississippi, swollen from spring rains and war-damaged levees. At about 2 A.M., as the Sultana moved through Paddy’s Hen and Chick Islands, seven to eight miles north of Memphis, at least one boiler exploded. The explosion hurled pieces of iron and wood into the soldiers on the main deck, while escaping steam scalded those near the boilers. 
Sultana on fire
Passengers on the boiler and hurricane decks were tossed into the air and then fell back onto the boat or into the cold water. A smokestack fell, breaking through the upper deck and pinning men on the lower decks, where they roasted to death in the ensuing fire. Survivors of the initial explosion jumped into the river, though many could not swim. Those who could maneuver in the water faced other life-threatening situations, including being pulled down by drowning victims or sucked into whirlpools created by the sinking ship. Survivor A. C. Brown recalled, “The water seemed to be one solid mass of human beings struggling with the waves.” Most of the soldiers—sick or malnourished from spending months as prisoners of war—could not swim in the cold water for any length of time.

Ninety minutes after the explosion, the Bostonia II, heading south toward Memphis, began to pick up survivors. As word of the disaster spread, any vessel available—from homemade rafts to river boats—joined in the rescue effort. Estimates of the rescued vary from 590 to 760, though 200 to 300 of them would die from their injuries. By midafternoon on April 27, the boats were recovering more corpses than survivors. Hundreds of bodies were never recovered, including that of Captain Mason. The final death toll, never determined precisely, has been estimated at 1,700 to 1,800.

On April 30, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton created a board of inquiry to investigate the explosion and sinking of the Sultana. Surviving passengers, including senator-elect William Snow, boilermaker R. G. Taylor, and army officers pointed the finger at each other, resulting in little conclusive evidence after a year of testimony. Ultimately official explanation stated, no individual was officially blamed for the overcrowding, and no exact cause was determined for the boiler explosion. Despite the lack of consequences for those involved, there was no public outcry.

In 1888, a St. Louis resident named William Streetor claimed that his former business partner, Robert Louden, made a deathbed confession of having sabotaged Sultana by a coal torpedo. Louden was a former Confederate agent and saboteur who operated in and around St. Louis. Louden had the opportunity and motive to attack Sultana. He may have had access to the means. Supporting Louden's claim are eyewitness reports that a piece of artillery shell was observed in the wreckage. Louden's claim is controversial, however, and most scholars support the official explanation. This disaster received somewhat diminished attention, as it took place soon after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln during the closing weeks of the American Civil War.

Disasters, Accidents, and Crises in American History by Ballard C. Campbell;
Pic Source:

Disasters, Accidents, and Crises in American History by Ballard C. Campbell page 119

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