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The Sinking of The Sultana

Sultana[1]In Shadows of the Soul, the hero, Luke Devlin, is a mentally and emotionally tortured hero. The torture starts when he’s young, perpetrated by an emotionally abusive aunt. But his life after leaving home is no picnic (partly to his own choices). He ends up in Andersonville prison. When he’s released, he decides to travel to Iowa to find the heroine. Unfortunately, he chooses the Sultana.

The Sultana was a riverboat that traveled the Ohio, Tennessee and Mississippi rivers, which sank after a terrible explosion on the morning of April 27, 1865. Most of the people on board were soldiers, many like my fictional character Luke, survivors of Andersonville prison or Cahaba prison.

Launched on January 3rd 1863, the Sultana was a $60,000 side-wheel riverboat/steamboat, 260 feet long with a hold 7 feet deep. Constructed with a flat bottom for inland water ways, it sported four coal-burning boilers, made in the new “fire tube” style. This style was considered more efficient, but were not, however , particularly good for the muddy water of the  lower Mississippi.

Originally built for the lower Mississippi cotton trade, The Sultana was a beautifully appointed ship with glass chandeliers and ornate Victorian trimming. It had room for 66 cabin passengers. The staterooms were small but luxurious, and the passengers could enjoy the passing scenery from the boiler deck promenade. The rest of the ship could accommodate 300 deck passengers and crew, the former of whom were like “steerage” passengers on ocean liners, and slept on bare planks, and had their food served on tin plates.

For all that, on the day the Sultana sank two years later it carried an estimated 2400 passengers.

Riverboats on Mississippi had a rough life. They were only expected to last  4 -5 years due to the perils of snags, debris and collisions. However about 200 of steamship disasters in the first half of century were due to boiler explosions.

At any rate Captain J.C. Mason piloted the Sultana out of Cairo, Illinois headed for New Orleans on April 15, 1865, the day President Lincoln died, and a week after the official end of the war. At the time, War Secretary Stanton had ordered southern newspapers not to print anything about Lincoln’s assassination, so when the Sultana arrived in New Orleans on April 19th, it was the first time they’d heard this news, which many didn’t believe.

The Sultana left New Orleans two days later on April 21st 1865 with only 75-100 passengers. 75 miles south of Vicksburg it was discovered that one of the coal-burning boilers was leaking from a bulging seam. They reduced the ship’s speed and it was decided to repair the boiler in Vicksburg. There the Captain was informed that the best repair, the most thorough and permanent, would be to replace two metal sheets adjoining the leak. However, Captain Mason was persuaded against his better judgment to patch the seam instead. It took 20 hours and the patch itself was thinner than the regular plating on the boiler. In addition heavy rain and melting snow increased the current made it harder for the steamship to travel.

While the Sultana was being repaired, Federal prisoners from Andersonville and Cahaba were arriving for passage to Cairo, Illinois. The price paid to transport enlisted men was generally five dollars, and ten dollars for an officer, good money for the time. The first 1300 soldiers, the lucky ones, were taken north by the Henry Ames on April 22. Afterwards more ex-prisoners being held at Camp Fisk were marched four miles to Vicksburg to board the Sultana. They were crammed on board, along with army mules, horses and hogs.

When the Sultana left Vicksburg it had 2400 people on board. It steamed North for 30 or more hours to Helena Arkansas, on April 26. There the last picture of the Sultana was taken. When the passengers heard of the photograph they moved to the port side to be part of the photograph, nearly capsizing the boat. An hour later it started up river. It’s next stop was Memphis, Tennessee, where they docked at 6:30 pm that night. There they did some minor repairs again on the boiler while some passengers disembarked. The ones who didn’t re-embark were the lucky ones. At midnight the Sultana cut across-stream to a coal yard, where it picked up a thousand bushels of coal. It left at 1 am on April 27th.

7 miles north of Memphis, at 2 am, The Sultana’s boiler finally gave out. It’s believe that the explosion ruptured two of three remaining boilers, and was heard all the way to Memphis. Debris tore through decks below, and many passengers were instantly scalded by superheated steam. Some were hurled into the air and thrown into the river. Others were burned or wounded by flying metal, and some were trapped in the burning ship.

The Sultana Saga, The Titanic of the Mississippi by Rex T. Jackson, has many different direct recollections of survivors’ tales. One passenger reported the hissing of steam and the crashing of the different decks, along with the horrors of the falling of the smoke stacks, and flames bursting through crowds of people, burning alive men who had survived battle and the horrors of Andersonville. He reported the sounds of people begging for help, of women shrieking and the sounds of horses neighing and mules braying, all kicking frantically in fear.

The explosion made machinery parts into projectiles, flying through the upper decks and killing passengers as they slept. One man wrote an account of waking up surrounded by fire. He escaped to the hurricane deck and used ropes to get to the bow, where he saw the dead and dying being trampled as people tried to escape. He reported seeing people crying, praying and singing.

As the Sultana burned, terrified people jumped into the water, whether they could swim or not. The water, one passenger reported, was a seething mass of humanity, and people jumping in often landed on top of other people. The passengers in the water hung onto each other. It didn’t last for very long, however. Many were injured by the explosion. Many were weakened by their time in prison, and drowned quickly.

One man was thrown into the water by the explosion, fully clothed. He swam as best he could for a while and was lucky  to catch hold a piece of debris large enough to keep him afloat.

One man sleeping on the boiler deck about 16 feet away from the explosion had his shoulder broken by the explosion. He was badly scalded and believed he should be burned alive, but he managed to crawl to the front of the boat. He jumped into the water and swam three and a half miles to shore, where he stayed until 9 am the next morning.

One smart man picked up a hatch door, threw it into the water, and then jumped on top of it. He floated on it until another steamer, the Bostonia picked him up. The Bostonia picked up about one hundred passengers.

Sadly, the Sultana had only one lifeboat. Although people did manage to get it into the water, so many tried to get into it that eventually it sank, taking everybody down with it.

Meanwhile on shor, a man whose house was across the river from the explosion said that fire was so bright, he could the ground clearly by it. He watched as the ship because a ball of fire and drifted down the river. By dawn of April 27th it sank in 26 feet of water, taking many dead with it.

That day and for weeks to follow bodies washed up on shore in and around Memphis, Fort Pickering and Helena. Many bodies just floated in the water decomposing and getting in the way of other boats and steamers, some of which would get caught up in the wheels of the paddle boats. To get them untangled was a gruesome job. 520 victims made it to hospitals, 200 of whom died, many so badly burned or wounded they died within hours.

In the end an estimated 1,547 people died that day. However, taking into account the people at the hospital, the casualty count is probably more like 1700-1800 in all. In comparison, the estimated dead of the Titanic 47 years later was about 1500 people. And yet, very few people have heard of this disaster, probably because it was so close to the end of the war and the death of Lincoln. Understandable, of course, but for the people who lost loved ones on the Sultana, and those who survived it to be physically and mentally scarred for the rest of their lives, the lack of press and therefore lack of understanding, was difficult and painful.

PHOTO borrowed from this site, which has some more very interesting information, and an eyewitness account.

The majority of my information came from The Sultana Saga, The Titanic of the Mississippi, by Tex T. Jackson

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