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Why Don't We Know About the Sultana?

By Edited Dec 29, 2015 1 0

On April 27, 1865, about 2,000 people lost their lives on a steamship on the Mississippi River, just near Memphis. The Sultana was a Union Steamship that was built to carry cotton and make runs from St. Louis to New Orleans. Once the Civil War ended, the ship was used on one run to bring some Prisoners of War back home to the North. In Vicksburg, Mississippi, the Sultana took on somewhere around 2,300 people on board, even though she was only made to carry 376. A boiler sprang a leak, so while stopping in Vicksburg, they made a temporary fix. After they left Vicksburg, they almost made it to Memphis when disaster struck. Two of the boilers exploded. Flames spewed everywhere and people were thrown from the boat. Most of the passengers didn't know how to swim, and were to sickly or tired to swim even if they knew how. Most of them drowned, including their captain, JC Mason. The event was so catastrophic, but many have never heard of it. Why does this event not make the history books? Why did it not even make the headlines of newspapers in 1865?

The first reason for this was because there were other events happening at this time period. It was the closing scenes of the Civil War. The Confederate Army surrendered to the Union on April 18, 1865 (just nine days before the Sultana Disaster). The country was destroyed, in many ways. Property and land was decimated. It was going to take a great deal to rebuild this country, and most of the newspapers were focusing on the Reconstruction. The Civil War was the deadliest war in American history claiming the lives of 620,000 people. It's not surprising that a disaster like the Sultana, where only a few thousand died, seemed less important.

Another event that took up the headlines was Lincoln's death. President Abraham Lincoln was our 16th president. On April 14, 1865, Lincoln was at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C. While there, he was shot by a man named John Wilkes Booth. President Lincoln died from the gunshot wounds the next morning. The public was shocked and deeply hurt because of this incident. Many saw Lincoln as a hero and a personal friend. They worried how a new president would fill his shoes, and what would happen if another national crisis was to take place. There was a nationwide panic! A little over a week later on April 26 (one day before the Sultana Disaster), Booth and his cohort were found. This would have created headlines across the United States, and possibly across the world, thus making any other stories seem less significant.

Another reason this story was not promoted much was probably because of the Army's intent to keep it quiet. It was not a courageous or exciting story that would recruit more people to the Army. If anything, it might make the people think that the Army was irresponsible for not taking proper care of the boiler, and for overloading too many passengers onto a ship. It would not be good publicity for the Army, and if anything would just make them look bad. They were probably not in a hurry to publish this story, and may have even encouraged people to not spread the word about it. An investigation was held to quietly find out what happened and who was responsible for this disaster. In the end, everyone was cleared, and no one was blamed for the tragedy.

Finally, one reason that most people have never heard about this event is because most of the major newspapers at the time came from the West or Northeast, while this accident happened in the Midwest. There were not many papers being published during the War because a lot of people were needed to fight. Newspapers that were still in business were extremely interested in the war and sent "war correspondence" reporters to report on the war. While these papers were strong in the North, West, and even Harper's Weekly in the South, there were not really any major papers reporting in the Midwest that could have reported about the Sultana. Even if there had been, they would have been more concerned with the War. The local papers were reporting the story of the Sultana, by calling it murder. However, these were small local papers and they did not carry much weight across the nation.

Even though the Sultana was a serious disaster and many lives were lost, most people have never heard of the event. There is much speculation as to why this is so. It probably has a great deal to do with the fact that the Civil War was ending, so there was something bigger already on people's minds. The president had just been shot and Andrew Johnson was getting ready to fill his shoes. The Army wasn't in a rush to publicize the event. Also, the major papers were not located in the area of the Sultana Disaster (just outside of Memphis), and the major papers of the day were interested in reporting on the War. This is why many people have never heard of the Sultana Disaster of 1865.



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