SS Sultana

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Ill-fated Sultana, Helena, Arkansas, April 27, 1865.jpg
Sultana near Helena, Arkansas a day before its destruction, c.April 26, 1865.
Name: Sultana
Owner: Initially Capt. Pres Lodwick, then a consortium
Port of registry:  United States
Route: St. Louis to New Orleans
Builder: John Litherbury Boatyard, Cincinnati
Launched: January 3, 1863
In service: 1863
Fate: Exploded and sank, April 27, 1865, on Mississippi River seven miles north of Memphis, TN.
General characteristics
Tonnage: 1,719 tons
Length: 260 Feet
Beam: 42 Feet
Decks: Four decks (including pilothouse)
Propulsion: 34 ft (10 m) diameter paddlewheels
Capacity: 376 passengers and cargo
Crew: 85
For other uses, see Sultana (disambiguation).
Sultana on fire, from Harpers Weekly.

Sultana was a Mississippi River side-wheel steamboat that exploded on April 27, 1865 in the greatest maritime disaster in United States history. An estimated 1,800 of her 2,427 passengers died when three of the boat's four boilers exploded and she burned to the waterline and sank near Memphis.[1] This disaster has long since, past and present, been overshadowed in the press by other recent events. John Wilkes Booth, President Lincoln's assassin, was killed the day before.

The wooden steamboat was constructed in 1863 by the John Litherbury Boatyard[2] in Cincinnati, and intended for the lower Mississippi cotton trade. Registering 1,719 tons,[3] the steamer normally carried a crew of 85. For two years, she ran a regular route between St. Louis and New Orleans, frequently commissioned to carry troops.

The tragedy[edit]

Sultana Memorial at the Mount Olive Baptist Church Cemetery in Knoxville, Tennessee in 2010

Under the command of Captain J. C. Mason of St. Louis, Sultana left New Orleans on April 21, 1865, with 75 to 100 cabin passengers, deck passengers, and numerous head of livestock bound for market in St. Louis. At Vicksburg, she stopped for a series of hasty repairs to the boilers and to take on more passengers. Rather than have a bad boiler replaced, a small patch repair was made to reinforce a leaking area. A section of bulged boiler plate was removed, and a patch of lesser thickness than the parent plate was riveted in its place.[4] This repair took about one day, whereas a complete replacement of the boiler would have taken about three days. During her time in port, men tried to muscle, bribe, and threaten their way on board, until the boat was bursting at the seams with soldiers. More than 2,000 men crowded aboard.[1]

Sultana disaster historical marker, Marion, AR

Most of the new passengers were Union soldiers, chiefly from Ohio and just released from Confederate prison camps such as Cahawba and Andersonville. The U.S. government had contracted with Sultana to transport these former prisoners of war back to their homes.[citation needed] With a legal capacity of only 376, she was severely overcrowded. Many of the passengers had been weakened by their incarceration and associated illnesses. Passengers were packed into every available space, and the overflow was so severe that the decks were completely packed.[citation needed]

The cause of the explosion was too much pressure and low water in the boiler. There was reason to believe allowable working steam pressure was exceeded in an attempt to overcome the spring river current.[4] The boiler (or boilers) gave way when the steamer was 7 to 9 miles (11 to 14 km) north of Memphis at 2:00 am.[5] The enormous explosion flung some of the passengers on deck into the water, and destroyed a large section of the boat. The forward part of the upper decks collapsed into the exposed furnace boxes which soon caught fire and soon turned the remaining superstructure into an inferno, the glare of which was visible as far away as Memphis.[6]

The first boat on the scene was the southbound steamer Bostonia II, coming downriver on her maiden voyage,[7] which arrived at about 3:00 am, an hour after the explosion, and overtook the burning wreck to rescue scores of survivors. The hulk of the Sultana drifted about six miles to the west bank of the river, and sank at around dawn near Mound City and present-day Marion, Arkansas. Other vessels joined the rescue, including the steamers Silver Spray, Jenny Lind, and Pocohontas, and the Navy tinclad Essex and the sidewheel gunboat USS Tyler, manned by volunteers. The ship's regular crew had been discharged days before.[6]

Passengers who survived the initial explosion had to risk their lives in the icy spring runoff of the Mississippi or burn with the boat.[4] Many died of drowning or hypothermia. Some survivors were plucked from the tops of semi-submerged trees along the Arkansas shore. Bodies of victims continued to be found downriver for months, some as far as Vicksburg. Many bodies were never recovered. Sultana '​s officers, including Captain Mason, were among those who perished.[6]

About 700 survivors, many with horrible burns, were transported to hospitals in Memphis. Up to 200 of them died later from burns or exposure. Newspaper accounts indicate that the people of Memphis had sympathy for the victims despite the fact that they had recently been enemies.[citation needed] The Chicago Opera Troupe staged a benefit, the crew of Essex raised $1,000, and the mayor took in three survivors.[6]

Monuments and historical markers to Sultana and her victims have been erected at Memphis; Muncie, Indiana; Marion; Vicksburg; Cincinnati; Knoxville; Hillsdale, Michigan; and Mansfield, Ohio.[citation needed]


The exact death toll is unknown. Estimates range from 1,300 to 1,900, higher than the Titanic disaster on the North Atlantic 47 years later. The official count by the United States Customs Service was 1,800. Of the total casualties, Ohio lost the most of any state, with 791 dead. Indiana lost 491 persons, with Kentucky suffering 194 dead. It is estimated that of the Ohio casualties, over fifty were Cincinnatians.[8] Final estimates of survivors were between 700 and 800. Many of the dead were interred at the Memphis National Cemetery.


The official cause of the Sultana disaster was determined to be mismanagement of water levels in the boiler, exacerbated by the fact that the vessel was severely overcrowded and top heavy. As the steamboat made her way north following the twists and turns of the river, she listed severely to one side then the other. Her four boilers were interconnected and mounted side-by-side, so that if the boat tipped sideways, water would tend to run out of the highest boiler. With the fires still going against the empty boiler, this created hot spots. When the boat tipped the other way, water rushing back into the empty boiler would hit the hot spots and flash instantly to steam, creating a sudden surge in pressure. This effect of careening could have been minimized by maintaining high water levels in the boilers. The official inquiry found that the boat's boilers exploded due to the combined effects of careening, low water level, and a faulty repair to a leaky boiler made a few days earlier.

In 1888, a St. Louis resident named William Streetor claimed that his former business partner, Robert Louden, made a death bed confession of having sabotaged Sultana by a coal torpedo.[9] Louden, a former Confederate agent and saboteur who operated in and around St. Louis, had the opportunity and motive to attack it and may have had access to the means. (Thomas Edgeworth Courtenay, the inventor of the coal torpedo, was a former resident of St. Louis and was involved in similar acts of sabotage against Union shipping interests.) 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. The location of the explosion, from the top rear of the boilers, far away from the fireboxes, tends to indicate that Louden's claim of sabotage was pure bravado.[10][11]

The episode of History Detectives, which aired on July 2, 2014, reviewed the known evidence and then focused on the question of why the steamboat was allowed to be crowded to several times its normal capacity before departure. The report blamed a Quartermaster named Reuben Hatch, an individual with a long history of corruption and incompetence, who was able to keep his job due to political connections: Among others, he was a close relative of Illinois politician Ozias M. Hatch. Reuben Hatch had authorized the large crowd of soldiers, garnering a ten-dollar fee for every soldier boarded on the steamboat. President Abraham Lincoln, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and General of the Army Ulysses S. Grant were also implicated, as they wrote letters whitewashing Reuben Hatch's incredible and lengthy record of criminality and irresponsibility in his duties as an Army quartermaster. The letters reside in the National Archives in Washington DC. Hatch refused three separate subpoenas to appear before Congress and give testimony before dying in 1871, having escaped justice due to his numerous highly placed patrons--including two Republican presidents.


An East Tennessee Sultana survivors' group met annually on April 27 (the anniversary of the disaster) until 1928, when just four survivors remained. Then on August 29, 1932 the last survivor of the disaster,[clarification needed] Orlando Cole of the 18th Michigan, died at the age of 89. Samuel H. Raudebaugh (Company K, 65th Regiment Ohio Infantry), also a survivor of the disaster, died on December 5, 1931 at the age of 89. Mr. Raudebaugh was a survivor of the battle of Franklin, Tennessee where he was captured and imprisoned at Andersonville. He was onboard Sultana when she blew up and survived the disaster. He later became the first President of the National Sultana Survivors Association in December 1885.[citation needed][12]

Remnants found[edit]

In 1982, a local archaeological expedition, led by Memphis attorney Jerry Potter, uncovered what was believed to be the wreckage of Sultana. Blackened wooden deck planks and timbers were found about 32 feet (10 m) under a soybean field on the Arkansas side, about 4 miles (6 km) from Memphis. The Mississippi River has changed course several times since the disaster. The main channel now flows about 2 miles (3 km) east of its 1865 position.[6]


  • Jay Farrar of the band Son Volt wrote a song called "Sultana", paying tribute to "the worst American disaster of the maritime". Farrar calls the boat "the Titanic of the Mississippi" in the song, which was released on the American Central Dust album.[13]
  • Cory Branan - "The Wreck of the Sultana"
  • The band Beehoover also paid tribute with their song "Sultana" which was released on their 2010 Concrete Catalyst album.


The J. Mack Gamble Fund of the Sons and Daughters of Pioneer Rivermen and the Friends and Descendants of Sultana sponsored a mural by Louisiana artist Robert Dafford and his crew entitled The Sultana Departs from Vicksburg as one of the Vicksburg Riverfront Murals. It was dedicated on April 9, 2005.[14][15]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Berryman, H.E.; Potter, J.O.; Oliver, S. (1988). "The ill-fated passenger steamer Sultana: an inland maritime mass disaster of unparalleled magnitude". Journal of Forensic Sciences 33 (3): 842–850. 
  2. ^ Given as the "John Lithoberry Shipyard" on Ohio Historical Marker 18-31 (1999) on the Ohio River at Sawyer Point.
  3. ^ Berry (1892), p. 7
  4. ^ a b c Bennett, Robert Frank, CDR USCG (March 1976). "A Case of Calculated Mischief". Proceedings: 77–83. 
  5. ^ Ambrose, Stephen (May 1, 2001). "Remembering Sultana". National Geographic News. 
  6. ^ a b c d e Harvey, Hank (October 27, 1996). "Unknown title (coverage of Sultana disaster)". The Blade (Toledo, Ohio). Section C pp. 3, 6. [clarification needed]
  7. ^ Potter, Jerry O. "Sultana: A Tragic Postscipt to the Civil War". American History Magazine. 
  8. ^ Ohio Historical Marker 18-31 "The Sultana" (1999) on the Ohio River at Sawyer Point.
  9. ^ "The Sultana Disaster (Coal Torpedo theory)". Civil War St Louis. Retrieved 2013-09-08. 
  10. ^ Tidwell, William A. (1995). "April '65". Kent, Ohio: The Kent State University Press. p. 52. 
  11. ^ Rule, Deb (December 2001). "The Sultana: A case for sabotage". North and South Magazine 5 (1).  |first1= missing |last1= in Authors list (help)[clarification needed]
  12. ^ "Samuel Henry Raudebaugh". Find A Grave. Retrieved 2013-09-08. 
  13. ^ Deusner, Stephen. "American Central Dust". Pitchfork Media (Review). Retrieved 31 January 2013. 
  14. ^ "The Sultana Departs from Vicksburg". Vicksburg Riverfront Murals. Retrieved 2013-09-08. 
  15. ^ Huffman, Alan (October 2009). "Surviving the Worst: The Wreck of the Sultana at the End of the American Civil War". Mississippi Historical Society. Retrieved 2011-02-07. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Huffman, Alan (2009). Sultana: Surviving the Civil War, Prison, and the Worst Maritime Disaster in American History. Collins. ISBN 0-06-147054-6. 
  • Bearss, Margie Riddle (Spring 1978). "Messenger of Lincoln Death Herself Doomed". The Lincoln Herald: 49–51. 
  • Berry, Chester D. (2005) [1892]. Loss of the Sultana and Reminiscences of Survivors. University of Tennessee Press. ISBN 1-57233-372-3. 
  • Bryant, William O. (1990). Cahaba Prison and the "Sultana" Disaster. University of Alabama Press. ISBN 0-8173-0468-1. 
  • Potter, Jerry O. (1992). The Sultana Tragedy: America's Greatest Maritime Disaster. Pelican Publishing. ISBN 0-88289-861-2. 
  • Salecker, Gene Eric (1996). Disaster on the Mississippi: the Sultana Explosion, April 27, 1865. Naval Institute Press. ISBN 1-55750-739-2. 
  • Salecker, Gene Eric (May 2002). "A Tremendous Tumult and Uproar". America's Civil War 15 (2). 
  • Rule, G. E.; Rule, Deb. "The Sultana: A case for sabotage". North and South Magazine 5 (1). 

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 35°11′26″N 90°6′52″W / 35.19056°N 90.11444°W / 35.19056; -90.11444