Monday, 18 May 2009
Fire on the River. The Steamboat SS Sutlana
The steamboat Sultana was a Mississippi River paddlewheeler destroyed in an explosion on 27 April 1865. This resulted in the greatest maritime disaster in United States history until that time. An estimated 1,800 of the 2,400 passengers were killed when one of the ship's four boilers exploded and the Sultana sank not far from Memphis, Tennessee. This disaster received somewhat diminished attention as it took place soon after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln and during the closing weeks of the Civil War.
Under the command of Captain J.C. Mason of St. Louis, the Sultana left New Orleans on April 21, 1865, with 75 to 100 cabin passengers, deck passengers, and numerous heads of livestock bound for market in St. Louis. At Vicksburg, Mississippi, the steamship stopped for a series of hasty repairs to the boilers and to take on more passengers. Rather than have a bad boiler replaced, a small patch weld job was done to reinforce a leaking area. A section of bulged boiler plate was removed, and a patch of less thickness than the parent plate was riveted in its place.
This repair only took about a day, whereas to replace the boiler completely would have taken about three days. Captain Mason was itching to be on his way and had the patch job done because it was faster. During the Sultana's time in port, men tried to muscle, bribe, and threaten their way on board, until the ship was bursting at the seams with soldiers. More than two thousand men crowded aboard.
Most of the new passengers were Union soldiers, chiefly from Ohio and just released from Confederate prison camps such as Cahawba and Andersonville. The US government had contracted with the Sultana to transport these former prisoners of war back to their homes. With a legal capacity of only 376, the Sultana was severely overcrowded. Many of Sultana's passengers had been weakened by their incarceration and associated illnesses. Passengers were packed into every available berth, and the overflow was so severe that the decks were completely packed.
The cause of the explosion was a leaky and poorly repaired steam boiler. There was reason to believe allowable working steam pressure was exceeded attempting to overcome the spring river current. The boiler (or "boilers") gave way when the steamer was about 7 to 9 miles north of Memphis at 2:00 A.M. There was a terrific explosion that sent some of the passengers on deck into the water while destroying a good portion of the ship. Hot coals scattered by the explosion soon turned the remaining superstructure into an inferno, the glare of which could be seen in Memphis.
The first boat on the scene at about 3:00 A.M. (an hour after the explosion) was the southbound steamer Bostonia II which overtook the burning wreck and rescued scores of survivors. The hulk drifted to the west bank and sank about dawn off the tiny settlement of Mound City, Arkansas. Other vessels joined the rescue, including the steamer Arkansas, the Jenny Lind, the Essex, and the Navy sidewheel gunboat USS Tyler, manned by volunteers. The ship's regular crew had been discharged days before.
Passengers who survived the initial explosion had to risk their lives in the icy spring runoff of the Mississippi or burn with the ship. Many died of drowning or hypothermia. Some survivors were plucked from trees along the Arkansas shore. Bodies of victims continued to be found downriver for months, some as far as Vicksburg. Many bodies were never recovered. The Sultana's officers, including Captain Mason, were among those who perished.
About 500 survivors, many with horrible burns, were transported to hospitals in Memphis. Up to 300 of them died later from burns or exposure. Newspaper accounts indicate that the people of Memphis had sympathy for the victims despite the fact that they had recently been enemies. The Chicago Opera Troupe staged a benefit, the crew of the Essex raised $1,000, and the mayor took in three survivors.
Monuments and historical markers to the Sultana and its victims have been erected at Memphis, Tennessee; Muncie, Indiana; Marion, Arkansas; Vicksburg, Mississippi; Cincinnati, Ohio; Knoxville, Tennessee; Hillsdale, Michigan; and Mansfield, Ohio.