Of the more than 2,100 Union troops who survived prisoner of war (POW) camps, almost 1,700 perished as their steamship, the Sultana exploded on April 27, 1865. This horrible story was given to me by a member of our former Silver Creek Civil War Roundtable club.
This accident happened after the Civil War was over, so I filed it away for future reference. Then, I received the spring addition of Blue Cross’ Life Times magazine, which had this story and picture about the explosion about the Sultana. I found more on Wikipedia. Civil War buffs. Have you heard this story, in detail? I had not.
The steam ship Sultana, under the command of Capt. J. Cass Mason had left St. Louis on April 13, 1865 and was docked at Vicksburg, Miss.
Capt. Mason was approached by Lt. Col. Reuben Hatch of Illinois, who was the chief quartermaster at Vicksburg. Hatch had a deal for Mason, and Hatch would take a cut. More than thousands of recently released Union soldiers, who were POWs from Camp Cahaba, near Selma, Ala., and Anderson Prison Camp in Georgia, were at a parole camp outside of Vicksburg, awaiting release to the North.
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The U.S. government would pay $5 per enlisted man and $10 per officer to any steamship captain that would take the group of paroled prisoners up river, as these prisoners were primarily from Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky and Tennessee.
While the former prisoners were boarded, the Sultana’s fourth boiler was being repaired, but it was just patched, per the captain’s demand. Although the Sultan had a legal capacity of 376 people, Hatch and Mason had agreed upon 1,400 men, but the Union officer in charge, in a mix-up, sent all the men, and boarded them in every available space.
The Sultana left Vicksburg on the night of April 24, 1865, severely overcrowded. The Sultana spent two days traveling upriver, fighting against the worst spring flood in the river’s history, going upstream against the swirling powerful water.
On April 26, 1865, the Sultana stopped at Helena, Ark., and a picture was taken by a local photographer. They reached Memphis, Tenn., by 7 p.m., where they unloaded 120 tons of sugar. They then took on a load of coal and headed north.
At about 2 a.m., when the ship was about seven miles north of Memphis, her boilers exploded. The enormous explosions flung some of the men on deck into the cold water and destroyed a large section of the deck. The balance of the deck was soon an inferno.
Survivors of the explosion panicked and raced to the safety of the water, but in their weakened condition, soon ran out of strength and drowned.
The steamship Boston II, arrived about 3 a.m. and rescued scores of survivors. Docked ships also helped the half-drowned victims. Some survivors were plucked from the tops of semi-submerged trees along the Arkansas shore.
Meanwhile, the Sultana was drifting downstream and sank on the west bank near Mound City. There were about 700 survivors but more than 200 of them later died from burns and exposure.
The Sultana’s officers, including Capt. Mason, were among those who perished.
The Life Times account raised many questions.
Did Rebel “boat bombers” plant blasting powder in the coal that was shoveled into Sultana’s furnaces?
Can a bad boiler patch alone explain the calamity?
The passenger count reached 2,427, with every inch of the four decks occupied. Did this cause the boilers to overheat and explode?
Lt. Col. Hatch, who had concocted the bribe, with Capt. Mason to over crowd the Sultana, quickly quit the service, and no one was ever held accountable for the largest maritime disaster at that time.
Three military investigations occurred. Just one resulted in charges. Hatch was court-martialed. He failed to appear, and the matter was dropped.
Roland Harris’ 90th birthday open house has been moved to the Highland Country Club. It will still from 2 to 4 p.m. on Sunday, June 28. Hope to see you there.