Today marks the 152nd anniversary of the explosion and sinking of the steamboat Sultana on the Mississippi River that claimed the lives of more than 1,800 recently-freed Union POWs packed on her decks for the voyage home — more than the number killed when the RMS Titanic sank in 1912. An excerpt from Noah Andre Trudeau's 2009 Naval History article about the disaster is reprinted below. The full article may be viewed here.
By 0200 on 27 April, the Sultana had eased past a collection of one large and several smaller islands known as Paddy's Hen and Chickens, when, with no warning, first one, then two more of her boilers exploded with a thunderous clap that could be heard seven miles away in Memphis. The force of the blast tore a 45-degree hole from the boat's bowels to her stern. In an instant, shards of the shattered boilers ripped through the passenger throng like shrapnel, while white-hot coal and burning cordwood sprayed across beams and planks that had been shattered into ready kindling.
'All Was Confusion'
The "first thing that I knew or heard was a terrible crash, everything seemed to be falling," recalled a Michigan soldier. "A piece of iron glanced my head," added Kentuckian Simeon Chelf, "and in the excitement I thought the rebels had fired a battery on us." An Ohioan declared: "Not more than three feet from where I was lying was a hole clear through the boat. It seemed as if the explosion of the boilers had torn everything out from top to bottom."5
Scores died in an instant. Others found themselves buried under flaming debris or blown overboard into the cold, dark river. "Everywhere steam was escaping, women were screaming, soldiers and crew cursing and swearing, horses neighing, mules braying, splinters flying," recorded an Ohio man, Nicholas Karns.6 Most of the pilot house was gone; the smokestacks shuddered and then toppled, one forward, the other backward. The entire midsection was a mass of flames driven by a stiff wind toward the stern. "I saw many men mangled," added another Buckeye, Peter Roselot, "some with arms and legs broken, others scalded and screaming in their agony."7
More died within minutes of the explosion. Those not fighting to survive in the water now faced life-or-death decisions. As Ohioan J. S. Cook put it, the choice was "between drowning and burning to death."8 Weakened deck sections collapsed, crushing or trapping victims. "I saw men, while attempting to escape, pitch down through the hatchway that was full of blue curling flames, or rush wildly from the vessel to death and destruction in the turbid waters below," recollected a Tennessee soldier.9
"All was confusion," attested an Ohio man, William H. Norton, adding that from the lower deck he could see that the "men were jumping into the river by the hundreds."10 There they fought the flood-swollen Mississippi and each other. "I saw at least twenty drown at once," said Indiana cavalryman Stephen M. Gaston. "As fast as one would feel he was drowning he would clutch at the nearest, and I believe many a bold swimmer was drowned that night who could have saved himself if alone." Tennessean Andrew Perry, clinging to the boat, watched with astonishment as a man and mule battled for a floating piece of the wheelhouse. "The mule would get its front feet on the raft and [the man] . . . would knock it off with a club. It would come again, for several times the mule almost capsized the craft. I don't think I ever saw a more earnest fight. The mule finally gave up or was killed."11
As long as they were intact, the side paddlewheels acted as jib sails, keeping the stern pointed downwind. But once the fittings burned loose and the wheels broke away, the hapless steamboat pivoted around 180 degrees. Now the blaze reversed course, relentlessly burning toward the bow, where perhaps as many as 500 people huddled. Within minutes all were either burned to death or cast into the water.
The swollen river current scattered the survivors along both sides of the Mississippi and downstream. Some held on to bits of flotsam until they grounded on dry land or were snagged by trees and clambered into the branches. Alerted by the screaming of victims being carried past, boats put out from nearby Mound City, Memphis, and small settlements in between. Some of the rescuers were able to haul in gasping survivors suffering from various stages of hypothermia; others spent frantic, futile minutes trying to locate voices calling for help that grew fainter and then fell silent.
Back near the wreck, several passing steamboats began hauling in survivors, many with broken bones or horrible burns. Among the latter was the engineer on duty when the boilers exploded. He would live long enough to make a deathbed statement about what had happened.
The fire on the Sultana died down enough that scores of survivors clinging to the boat's hull were able to haul themselves back aboard where they fought the lingering flames and tried to ignore the sight of blackened and shriveled bodies. Enough unburned rope was found that, with the help of some survivors riding small boats in the water, the drifting Sultana wreckage was lashed to a clump of trees. The fire never quit, eventually forcing those still on board to take to rafts or clamber into the trees to escape. At last the flames succumbed to the cold river waters that closed over the charred hull. The Sultana sank at approximately 0900 on a bar near Mound City.
All those who would survive the disaster were located within 12 hours of the explosion. Body recovery would stretch into the second week of May, some discovered as far as 120 miles below Memphis. Many were never found, including the steamboat's master, J. Cass Mason.
Original Page: https://www.navalhistory.org/2017/04/27/death-on-the-river
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