In the days after the Civil War, the steamboat Sultana exploded and sank on the Mississippi River on April 27, 1865, at Memphis, killing 1,800 passengers – almost all of them former prisoners of war returning home from the South. It remains the worst maritime disaster in U.S. history.
The story of the Sultana is largely forgotten, eclipsed by the news a day earlier that President Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, had been found and killed.
Jerry O. Potter, author of “The Sultana Tragedy,” tells the tragic story of the men of the 6th Kentucky Cavalry. “These men had survived months and years of combat, and they were captured near Tuscaloosa, Alabama, on April 1, 1865. I mean, the war was almost 10 days from being over when they were captured.”
The Sultana, a 250-foot-long steamboat built in Cincinnati in 1863, was designed to carry only 376 passengers.
Wartime transport was big business. “There was a big competition among the boats to get a load of prisoners,” Potter said. The government was paying $5 per enlisted man, $10 per officer, to carry men upriver from the South.
Potter says 1,000 men, at $5 a head, meant $5,000—a princely sum.
On April 24, 1865, three steamboats stood ready in Vicksburg, Mississippi, to take on former POWs. Most boarded the Sultana, headed for Cairo, Illinois.
“Vicksburg was a cesspool of crooked, corrupt, Union officers in 1865,” Potter said. The Sultana’s captain knew one of the four boilers was leaking and not safe, he says, yet officials ignored the danger.
Loaded with POWs, it carried close to 2,500 people on that spring day. Decks sagged under the weight of the men.
One of the clerks said that if the Sultana made it safely to Cairo, it would be the largest number of passengers ever carried upriver on a single boat.
The last known photo of the Sultana, taken as it passed through Helena, Arkansas, shows a steamboat filled shoulder-to-shoulder with men.
At 2 in the morning on April 27, 1865, the leaking boiler exploded and ignited two other boilers. “There was this tremendous explosion that completely destroyed the center of the boat,” Potter said. The Sultana was in flames.
Many of the Kentucky prisoners were placed on the boiler deck and were killed in the initial explosion. “They were so close to being home,” Potter said. “…To be virtually murdered by their own government – even after researching this for almost 35 years, I’m still horrified at what happened.”
Some soldiers, weak from their captivity, leapt overboard into the cold currents of the Mississippi. Many were unable to swim.
“No rescue efforts were really undertaken until two or three hours later when survivors started drifting…to the riverfront in Memphis,” Potter said.
Since there was no accurate record of all those aboard, identifying the number of dead proved difficult. An estimated 1,800 passengers died.
Historians say 194 Kentuckians died in the disaster. Among the dead was Union Major William Fidler of the 6th Kentucky Cavalry, the highest ranking former POW on the Sultana and the commander of the paroled POWs.
Despite the deaths, no one was held responsible. The military determined while the boat was overcrowded, it was not overloaded. “The end result is no one was punished for the worst maritime disaster in American history,” Potter said.
In fact, Potter says, the government even rejected a request from survivors to erect a monument to those who died in the tragedy.
“What would these men have become in life? A lot of them were young, never given an opportunity. To me, that’s the tragedy. That’s what we’ll never know,” Potter said.
This segment is part of Kentucky Life episode #2008 which originally aired on January 31, 2015. Watch the full episode.