It was nothing short of miraculous that they had survived this long. Many of their comrades had not. Their time in the notorious Camp Sumter in Andersonville, Georgia and Cahaba Prison near Selma, Alabama had made them ill and emaciated. They kept holding on for one more day.
Then word came that Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia on April 9, 1865 and the end of the war became inevitable. And these Union prisoners of war were soon issued their paroles and sent to a parole camp on the outskirts of Vicksburg, Mississippi to await transportation home to recover, to the extent they could, in the welcoming arms of their loved ones.
On April 26, the paddle wheeler Sultana pulled in to Vicksburg to have her boilers checked out. A leak had necessitated diversion. She was on the way north on her regular run from New Orleans to St. Louis and only had 70 paying civilian passengers and 85 crew. The Union army was paying private boat owners for transporting troops north--$2.75 per enlisted man and $8 per officer. The Sultana’s captain wanted to capitalize on the potentially lucrative contract, but to do so, he’d have to push the limits of his boat. The Sultana was originally designed to hold 376 people, but due to both intentional forces (kickbacks and corruption) and unintentional forces (miscounting the number of rail cars bringing soldiers from the parole camp to the docks), over 2,000 men walked the gangway and crowded onto every available space.
In the early morning hours of April 27, shortly after making a stop in Memphis, Tennessee, the Sultana was steaming north in the middle of the wide, flooded Mississippi River when the ship’s boilers, which had been hastily patched against the recommendation of the Vicksburg boilermaker who had tended them, suffered a catastrophic failure.
The boilers exploded, the ship caught on fire and the decks and smokestacks collapsed.
J. Walter Elliot described the scene: “…mangled, scalded human forms heaped and piled amid the burning debris on the lower deck. The cabin, roof, and texas were cut in twain; the broken planks on either side of the break projecting downward, meeting the raging flames and lifting them to the upper decks.” (Chester D. Berry, Loss of the Sultana and Reminiscences of Survivors, Lansing, 1892, pg. 115-117)
William A. McFarland observed, “The wildest confusion followed. Some sprang into the river at once, others were killed and I could hear the groans of the dying above the roar of the flames…I was on the hurricane deck aft. This part of the boat was jammed with men. I saw the pilot house and hundreds of them sink through the roof into the flames; at which juncture I sprang overboard into the river.” (ibid pg 249)
For the men who weren’t scalded by the steam, burned by the fire, crushed by the collapse or crippled from their ordeal in the prisoner of war camps, their only chance at survival was to face the raging, swollen river.
“The water around the vessel for a distance of twenty to forty feet was a solid, seething mass of humanity, clinging one to another. The best or luckiest man was on top. I then, after partially dressing, went forward, climbing down on the wreckage to the lower deck on the west side, and when I looked out over the water where but a few minutes before there were hundreds of men struggling for supremacy, now there were but few to be seen. The great mass of them had gone down, clinging to each other.” -- Sgt. James H. Kimberlin (J.H. Kimberlin, The Destruction of the Sultana, Hamilton, 1910, pg. 19)
Some men paddled to shore using any buoyant object they could find. Some spent the night clinging to the limbs of trees whose trunks were awash by the river that had jumped its banks. Some were rescued by ships sent from Memphis.
Though an accurate count of the victims of the disaster is not available, Jerry O. Potter, in his book The Sultana Tragedy: America’s Greatest Maritime Disaster, contends that the official death toll of 1,547 was likely understated by almost 300. Even so, the official death toll makes the sinking of the Sultana America’s greatest maritime disaster--outpacing the sinking of the Titanic (estimated at 1,517).
The captain went down with the ship. Three Union officers who had a hand in overloading the ship all escaped military justice. In the end, no one was held accountable for one of the Civil War's saddest incidents.
Toni is a wife, mom and history buff who loves bringing the Civil War to life for family members of all ages.