Twelve days after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, a steamboat named the Sultana, made its way upriver from Memphis, Tennessee. Its passengers consisted of Union soldiers, paroled from the prisons at Andersonville, Georgia and Cahaba, Alabama, and civilian men, women, and children. All unaware of the trouble lurking under their feet ready to explode.
The Sultana was built in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1863. For two years, the Sultana carried supplies and troops up and down the Mississippi River for the Union Army. The morning of April 15, 1865, word arrived via telegraph of President Lincoln’s assassination. Cass Mason, the captain of the Sultana set down the Mississippi River toward New Orleans, Louisiana, wanting to be the first to spread the news to the South.
He arrived in Vicksburg, Mississippi, where Captain Reuben Benton Hatch approached him with an offer. The United States government was sending home Union soldiers who had been held captive at Andersonville and Cahaba, paying so much per man, per hundred miles to bring the soldiers home. Hatch promised Mason at least 1,000 men (an estimated $2,500 profit) if Mason gave Hatch a cut. Aware that the Sultana could safely carry 376 passengers and around 80 crew, Mason went ahead and agreed to the deal before continuing down the river spreading word about the assassination.
Mason arrived back in Vicksburg on April 23, his steamboat needing repairs. While being fixed, soldiers boarded the Sultana, roughly 1,960 of them, along with 22 guards, 85 crew members and 70 paying passengers, bringing the total to 2,137 people. The Sultana slowly made its way upriver, its boilers overtaxed because of the spring flood current. They arrived in Memphis around 7:00 p.m. where they unloaded 300,000 pounds of sugar and added a load of coal. At 1:00 a.m. on April 27, the Sultana continued its journey to Cairo, Illinois. An hour later, an explosion boomed in the quiet night. Three of the four boilers had exploded, ripping upward through the middle of the Sultana. The people closest to the explosion, either went flying and landing in the water or died instantly. The passengers farther away from the explosion were trapped on either side.
The Sultana’s bow faced into the wind causing the flame to focus on the stern of the ship. People on the bow waited and watching the chaos from the stern as men, women, and children jumped ship to escape the flames. Then one of the big side paddlewheel boxes broke away from the ship. It caused the ship to turn directions, putting the bow of the ship against the wind. The flames moved toward the once safe passengers. A battle of survival ensued both on the ship and in the water.
A passing steamboat, Bostona (No.2), saw the horrid scene and began a rescue. Passengers who had escaped the Sultana and floated down toward Memphis, called out for help to the boats along the shore. The boats rushed to the Sultana seven miles upriver. In all, 963 people survived. Of the estimated 50 women and children aboard, only 4 or 5 women survived, with none of the children making it through. The death toll reached 1,169 lost souls, making this the worst maritime disaster in American history.
Many Americans were unaware of this tragedy due to the newspapers covering the bigger stories of the end of the Civil War and the assassination of President Lincoln. Twenty years later, a few of the survivors decided to create an association to help preserve the details of that fatal day and the memory of the souls lost. Meetings took place in the north and the south and continued once a year around the time of the disaster until 1933 with the last two survivors. Years passed and the history of that day seemed lost. Not until in 1987 a foundation was created called The Sultana Association of Descendants and Friends. This foundation’s mission is the same as the original meetings, to help preserve the Sultana’s history and the memory of its passengers. More about this association and its history can be found at https://www.thesultanaassociation.com/