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 Sultana Disaster

Though much smaller in size than the Titanic, it was the most terrible boat disaster in the United States history, the loss of the Sultana on April 26, 1865 at the end of the American Civil War. It was overshadowed by the loss of President Lincoln and the Civil War.

The Sultana Disaster

Shortly after midnight on April 27, 1865, the Sultana left Memphis, Tenn., on her way north to Cairo, Illinois. The Sultana was a Mississippi River side-wheeler paddle boat that was 260 feet long and designed to carry a legal capacity of 376 passengers (by comparison the Titanic was 882 feet long and carried 2,220 passengers). Between 7 to 8 miles north of Memphis, the Sultana exploded with a horrific sound that could be heard ten miles away seconds later, a brilliant and violent fireball could be seen in the sky.

 The Beginning of the Disaster

Three days before Confederate General Robert E. Lee had surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse; the Sultana was on its way to bring home prisoners of war that had been held at the Andersonville and Cahaba prison camps. The Sultana pulled into Cairo, Illinois two days later and received the news that President Lincoln had been assassinated. Since all of the telegraph lines had been destroyed during the Civil War, the Sultana carried the sad news with her as she made her way down river. When docked at Vicksburg, Mississippi, it is widely rumored that Sultana was greeted by Colonel Reuben B. Hatch who had promised the ship's captain a sizable load of recently freed soldiers in exchange for illegal compensation. The soldiers that had been released from Andersonville and Cahaba and were in varying states of malnutrition; with many suffering from scurvy, chronic diarrhea and a host of other diseases. In March and April of 1865, more than 5,000 men had been moved to Camp Fisk, four miles east of Vicksburg. From there they were to be sent North, by private steamers, to Camp Chase, Ohio and were to be eventually released. Due to cover-ups, bribes and greed, no one will ever know the exact number of men put aboard the Sultana.

 The Numbers

 The government said 1,886 prisoners were put on the Sultana; an aide at Vicksburg counted 2,134. The Memphis Daily Bulletin reported 2,200 and the Clerk of the Sultana said there were 2,400.  Even with the variance of the government, the aid, the Daily Bulletin and the Clerk, this is quite a number considering the capacity of the steamboat was only 376.  In addition, there were 100 fare paying passengers, 85 crewmen, approximately 200 horses and mules, over 300,000 lbs. of sugar, 90 cases of wine and one large alligator in a crate all on a 376 passenger boat.  For all aboard, the Sultana carried only 76 life vests and two lifeboats.

Picture of the Sultana published in Harper's Weekly

 The Disaster of a Weakened Vessel

 Without detailing all the problems of the ill-fated Sultana, it is recognized that the boat, which in addition to being grossly overloaded, had defective boilers that had been recently, but marginally, repaired at least three times and it was bucking an unusually strong current of the flood-stricken Mississippi River. The night was as dark as the mighty river was murky at 2 a.m. on April 27, 1865.  At that moment, three of the four boilers erupted into a volcanic fury, spewing steam and hot coal over the entire boat, passengers and the surrounding Mississippi waters; waters that were dirty, cold and flood-swollen from the heavy spring rains. Only hours before, it was told that many of the soldiers had been trying to find some nook or cranny on the hideously over-crowded boat to lie down and settle in for the final leg of their trip home. For the others on board the doomed vessel, there were dreams of seeing loved ones as they watched the receding lights of Memphis fade into the darkness of night. By sunrise, more than 1,800 people had lost their lives. Of the nearly 800 that were taken to local hospitals, approximately 300 of those died in the following months from a plethora of illness, disease and injuries. Many drowned simply because they did not have the strength to stay above water due to illness or simple exhaustion. Survivors, and the dead, were found floating miles down the Mississippi. A lucky few were able to grab onto a snag, tree, a board or were somehow carried to shore; one soldier survived by killing the alligator with a knife and using his cage as a boat. There were more than a thousand missing souls, of which only 197 were recovered.

 Summit County Soldiers

 There were 754 from Summit County, Ohio, with the greatest number coming from Company C of the 115th Ohio Volunteer Infantry. They originally had been sent to the area of Nashville, Tenn., to guard the railroads. Nearly every man from Companies C, F, and G were captured by Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest's soldiers and taken south to prison camps. Most of the men from Summit County were in the 115th Infantry. Some of them include:

Robert Gaylord
Prisoner Profile
 
Charles Wetmore
Prisoner Profile
 
Alson Wetmore
Prisoner Profile
 
Albert Squires
Prisoner Profile
 
Lemuel Wilcox
Prisoner Profile
 
 Joseph Wagner
Prisoner Profile
 b 1843, d April 27,1865
 
William Smathers
Prisoner Profile
Capt. Means Company, 115th Ohio Inf Northampton Ohio

 

Edward Ellis
Prisoner Profile
 
Henry Nickerson
Prisoner Profile
 
William Harrison Norton
Prisoner Profile
Survived - b: Summit Co., OH, 1841; Co C 115 OVI; Hudson, OH
 
John H. James
Prisoner Profile
Survived - b: Paris, OH, 1844; Co F 115 OVI; Akron, OH
 
Arthur Sergeant
Prisoner Profile
 
A. A. Jones
Survived - b: Stow, OH, 1843; Co C 115 OVI; Parkman, OH

 

 

Courtesy of the Library of Congress - American Memory Civil War Photos

This was taken the day before the boilers exploded

 

Information from:
"The Sultana Tragedy: America's Greatest Maritime Disaster". 1992 Pelican Books.
Long, Fred. "Stories From a Stow Native", 2001 - Stow Historical Society
Dickson, William F. "Aboard The Sultana." Civil War Times (Feb 1974); 38-39.
Harper's Weekly, December 7, 1861
Andersonville Prisoners of War, 1863-65
Ancestry Database http://ancestry.com/search/rectype/inddbs/3708.htm
Civil War Soldiers & Sailors System http://www.itd.nps.gov/cwss/

 


 
 

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Graphics, stories, articles and other partial content are all Copyright ©2006-2011 Jeri Holland and other respective authors.