The Sultana Ablaze

With the recent, public interest in the high-profile tragedy involving the Italian cruise ship, Costa Concordia, it is illuminating to look back at another significant maritime disaster, the Sultana Steamboat Tragedy.

Over 100 years ago, on the Mississippi River, the Sultana, a state-of-the-art paddle-wheeler, blew apart for reasons still unknown and condemned 1,600 passengers to their deaths. In monetary terms, the disaster does not even rank in the top fifty, most costly disasters. Instead, it has the more dubious distinction of being, in terms of life and limb, the single worst maritime disaster in United States history.

The Sultana

The Finest Ship on the Mississippi River

The Sultana was a wonder of its time commanded by an able and experienced captain, J.C. Mason. A steam-powered, state of the art side-wheeled ship, the Sultana was built to transport cotton from the plantations of the South to the Northern mills. At the end of the war, however, her captain was sidetracked by honor, duty and a significant payday to transport Union soldiers back to their homes.

Maritime regulations existed in the mid 19th century and the Sultana could legally carry 376 passengers in addition to her crew of 85. Unfortunately, the captain and his crew, overcome by the importunities and the promise of money gave in to their better instincts and allowed far more so soldiers to debark than was prudent.

The Trip Itself

Prudence and Common Sense Disregarded

The fateful journey started out innocently enough from New Orleans on April 21st with just under 100 passengers plus the crew. The ship headed north on the Mississippi River and, three days later, stopped at Vicksburg MI, the site of huge Union victory and the temporary home to thousands of Union officers and soldiers. Many of the soldiers had been just recently been released from Confederate prisoner of war camps and were, rightfully, concerned about getting home.  At this point, a government spokesman informed Captain Mason that the Federal government would pay him five dollars per enlisted man and ten dollars per officer to transport them up the river to any stop before St. Louis that the passenger desired.

Captain Mason was a prudent man and would, ordinarily have taken the prescribed limit of passengers and been on his way. Unfortunately, fate interceded when one of the Sultana’s boilers burst and required immediate repairs. The captain, in a rare misjudgment, had a temporary steel plate welded over the leak instead of waiting for the entire boiler to be replaced. It was a decision that would prove fatal to over 1700 people.

The Judgment Call

Captain Mason Falls Short

As is so often the case in events like this, a confluence of extreme circumstances combined to produce this tragedy in the Spring of 1865. The damaged boiler caused the Sultana to remain in port at Vicksburg for an extra day. As such, it was besieged night and day by disheartened soldiers, desperate to get home to their loved ones.

There were few ships with room for human cargo plying the Mississippi at the time and every attempt was made to gain entry to one. Bribes, blackmail and the threat of force were exerted on every member of the crew. Captain Mason, recognizing the situation, made an executive decision and ordered that every spare space be made available to the gallant men of the Union Army. He knew, very well, that his ship was well-built and that, without the usual cargo of cotton, could hold many times the legal limit. He also counted on the fact that many would disembark along the way and the ship would only be overloaded for a short distance.

The Accident

Mayhem Waiting to Happen

With the repairs to the boiler completed, Captain Mason headed out of Vicksburg and continued on to Memphis, TN. The boiler had held and the captain was still confident in his abilities and in his ship. Unbeknownst to the captain, however, the Mississippi River was beginning to swell form an unusually large winter snowfall and melt. The river was several miles wide at most points. This fact would prove disastrous for the passengers of the Sultana.

On April 26th, the Sultana left Memphis with 2300 passengers and crew. To put this number in perspective, the Titanic only carried 2200 people and the Costa Concordia had a little over 4,000. Like the Titanic, the Sultana was woefully short of lifeboats and life preservers.

The end came suddenly, when the “repaired” boiler exploded about nine miles north of Memphis. The other two boilers quickly followed suit and exploded. Passengers were burned, scalded or thrown into the icy Mississippi. The ship was in the middle of the channel and the one mile swim to either shore was impossible for almost every person aboard. Although a south bound steamer arrived less than an hour after the explosion, rescue efforts were meager as the resources to deal with a tragedy of this magnitude were simply not available.

The Aftermath

The Sultana, its passengers and crew would slowly wash up on shore throughout that grim night and through most of the next day. Bodies would be found for several months thereafter as far south as Vicksburg and eventually over a thousand corpses would be recovered. Some of the survivors fared no better as they died in hospital from extreme hypothermia and burns. Captain Mason’s body was never recovered though it is widely thought that he did his duty and managed rescue operations from the ship to the very end.

It is disquieting that many soldiers who had withstood the vicissitudes of war and suffered the privations of internment should humbly end their lives with the explosion of a temperamental boiler. Life is full of such ironies but some consolation may be taken in the fact that the people of the South turned out in droves to help rescue their former enemies. The towns of Memphis and Vicksburg even erected memorials to the victims of the Sultana.

It is a testament to the nature of the Americans that some good could come from so profound a tragedy. It is similarly enlightening to examine the actions and motivations of the crew and captain of that other, ill fated ship, the Costa Concordia.