Sultana (steamboat)

From Academic Kids

The steamboat Sultana was a Mississippi River paddlewheeler which was destroyed in an explosion on 27 April 1865, the greatest maritime disaster in United States history. 1,700 of the Sultana's 2,400 passengers were killed when the overcrowded ship's steam drum exploded and the Sultana sank.

Missing image
Steamboat Sultana just before the disaster

Most of the passengers on the Sultana were Union soldiers just released from Confederate prison camps such as Cahawba and Andersonville. Sultana had been contracted by the United States government to transport these former prisoners of war back to their homes in the north. With a legal capacity of only 376, the Sultana was severely overcrowded, and many of her passengers had been weakened by their incarceration and associated illnesses. Passengers were packed into every available berth and the overflow was so severe that the decks were completely packed.

The cause of the tragedy was a leaky and poorly repaired steam drum. The steam drum gave way several miles north of Memphis, Tennessee at about 3:00 A.M. in a terrific explosion that sent most of those passengers on deck into the water and destroyed a good portion of the ship. Hot coals scattered by the explosion soon turned the remaining superstructure into a raging inferno.

Many of the passengers who were not killed immediately by the explosion or superheated steam drowned due to their weakened state. Bodies of the victims continued to be found for months downriver. Many bodies were never recovered.

About 500 survivors were transported to hospitals in Memphis, many with horrible burns. Up to 200 of these victims died later from their wounds. Newspaper accounts indicate that the people of Memphis took the victims of the disaster to heart despite the fact that they had until recently been enemies.

This disaster did not receive the press attention one would expect, due to the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln and the end of the Civil War.

Monuments and historical markers to the Sultana and its victims have been erected at Memphis, Muncie, Indiana, Marion, Arkansas, Vicksburg, Mississippi, Cincinnati, Ohio, Knoxville, Tennessee, Hillsdale, Michigan, and Mansfield, Ohio.

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