April 27, 1865 — The Sultana was overcrowded with almost 2,000 recently released Union soldiers that had been held by the Confederacy. They were packed into the steam boat as it powered up a relentless spring-time flood on the Mississippi river, and though it was cramped, many were probably happy to be there. After the Civil War and incarceration in the south, they were finally going home.
All of the sudden, two boilers from the ship exploded and took out huge chunks of the ship with it. The Sultana quickly became nothing more than large, collapsing pieces of floating, fiery debris. Many were killed instantly or as the ship sank, many drowned as there was only a few life preservers and one lifeboat, some managed to survive and swim to shore, but even some of them died of injuries or hypothermia. The captain of the ship, largely responsible for the accident, also perished.
It is not known how many lost their lives in this fatal accident, but the United States Customs Service recorded 1,547 deaths — the Army put it at 1,238. Most numbers from the Titanic average just over 1,500, and so if the U.S. Customs Service is correct, that would make the sinking of the Sultana the worst maritime accident in U.S. history. Some estimates put the death toll of the Sultana at 1,700 or even 1,800. Regardless, it was a tragedy that was etched into the minds of the 600 survivors.
However, due to other significant events at the time, the accident was largely overshadowed. The Civil War was obviously winding down which was big news, and the assassin of President Abraham Lincoln had just been shot and killed the day before after a long and public manhunt.
The Sultana accident was found to be a combination of numerous mishaps and negligent commands. The soldiers were not all supposed to go on the boat — it was only rated for 376 passengers but in order to make as much money as possible, they boarded as many as they possibly could. 376 slots turned into 1,978 former prisoners of war, 22 guards, 70 passengers plus the 85 regular crew members. They were taking an overloaded boat, and fighting against a stronger current than usual.
They also rushed through repairs on a damaged boiler. The mechanic wanted to stay longer for a thorough fix, but the Captain told him to patch it up temporarily in order to get going on time. After all, the government was offering $5 for enlisted men to be transported up the Mississippi back home, and $10 for each officer. Judging by the ratio of officers to enlisted men at the time, that would have been approximately $10,580 on this one shipment of former prisoners. A dollar went a lot further back then than it does now, and that would be a fortune.
It was a payday he could have afforded to miss.
Featured image: In this April 26, 1865 file photo, provided by the Library of Congress, the steamboat Sultana is docked on the Mississippi River at Helena, Ark. (AP Photo/Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, File)