“On April 24, the Sultana returned to Vicksburg. Although one boiler had sprung a leak, which required immediate repair, Mason sought out Captain Hatch about his promised load of paroled prisoners. Through misunderstanding, unscrupulous activity, sheer ignorance, and wanton incompetence, close to 2,000 prisoners were crowded onto a boat legally registered to carry only 376 passengers. In the end, even Captain Mason, who would benefit from every single person placed on his boat, protested when the load became too great.”
— The Sultana Disaster Museum’s Website
When one thinks of sea-borne disasters, the Titanic’s name immediately pops into your mind. It’s only logical. The sinking of the largest moving man-made object on earth is bound to attract a lot of attention. But what if I told you a much smaller boat lost more people, on a river no less? You might think it impossible, yet it happened.
What’s more, it’s likely most have never heard of the disaster. It happened to be sandwiched between the end of the U.S. Civil War, in which 618,000 people are thought to have died, and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. As you can imagine, people might have been distracted by other things at the time.
Jerry Potter, the author of The Sultana Tragedy, explained in his interview with NPR the Sultana had about 2500 packed aboard its 260-foot paddle wheeled frame meant to hold under 400. Many reported the ship swaying if the passengers crowded either side of the boat. Unfortunately, disaster was inevitable in this situation.
In the end, Potter estimates 1800 died on the river on April 27, 1865. This is about 300 more than the Titanic. Although the Sultana’s name doesn’t carry as much weight as the prestigious ocean liner, however, the story might touch more of a nerve.
The men on this boat weren’t pleasured cruise travelers. They survived one of the most brutal wars in U.S. history. In addition, many were also prison camp survivors, which were notoriously bad in the Civil War. Author Philip Gerard describes the conditions of the Salisbury camp in these words:
“They are stricken by dysentery from poor sanitation and pneumonia from living outdoors in mud warrens during the long, wet winters. Smallpox passes quickly among men so closely confined, and dengue, or break-bone fever, is carried by the ubiquitous lice. Wounded men, men whose limbs have become frostbitten, succumb to gangrene; their limbs rot off their bodies. Starved of protein and fresh fruit, they ulcerate with scurvy.”
These were men who were on a trip home from hell. Finally, after all they faced, they were offered a reprieve from their prison sentence of war and internment. The mood on this overcrowded ship was light and happy. However, their final trip had them facing an unforgiving river at flood stage. In addition, a nation tired of death and destruction seemed to move on from the incident and chose to forget about it.
This is the story of almost understandable greed, all too likely incompetence, and a war-weary nation. It’s also a tale of unexpected heroes saving former enemies who were now uniformless men drowning in a river. This is the unknown story of the Sultana.
Sultana Arrives With News And Gets A Job
According to Eric Salecker’s book Disaster On The Mississippi, Captain James Mason and his boat Sultana had arrived in Vicksburg in mid-April. They heard Abraham Lincoln was assassinated and traveled around delivering the news due to down telegraph lines. While in Vicksburg, Mason crossed paths with Captain Reuben Hatch.
Hatch told Mason a camp of paroled Union prisoners was set up there, and those soldiers needed to be taken home. Hatch said he could get Mason a load of 1400 if the ship captain gave him part of the voyage's profit. Author Jerry Potter says Mason had been hurting for money due to the war and immediately took the deal.
The Sultana left port to continue to spread the news about Lincoln and pick up and drop off cargoes. In its travels, a boiler sprung a leak. A mechanic was brought on board to fix it and recommended an extensive repair, which would take days. The captain and his engineer, Nathan Wintringer, talked the repairmen into patching it — the full repair might cause them to miss their meal ticket.
Due to the patch, the Sultana made the rendezvous and loaded up the prisoners. From descriptions of Captain William Shields Friesner recorded by the Sultana Museum, it appears there was total confusion at the dock. As Shields talked to other army personnel, no one knew exactly how many people were loaded aboard. At points, he saw the ship captain arguing with an army officer about the number of men boarding.
Fighting Against The River And Disaster
After days traveling up the heavily swollen Mississippi, they arrived in Memphis. According to Wintringer, they unloaded a cargo of 120 tons of sugar. At this point, he claims the boilers were in good condition, and everything appeared fine. Although he said, the ship had become incredibly top-heavy due to the hull's loss of weight.
Around two in the morning on April 27, an explosion rocked the ship. One of the boilers exploded, taking out the others. The explosion blew masses of people into the water and collapsed part of the top decks onto the bottom levels. The Sultana drifted on the overflowing river engulfed in flames.
“It must be remembered that on the 27th of April the water is still very cold. The night was very dark. None of us knew where we were. With a raging fire behind us, with pitiful cries and pleadings of the poor unfortunates who were pinned down by parts of the wreckage, and a broad expanse of water in front, certain death if you tarry or remain where you are — a chance to save yourself if you will but take it, I with many others took that chance in the great lottery of life.”
— Sergeant James Harvey Kimberlin, The Sultana Disaster Museum’s Website
Soldiers on board were left to fend for themselves. They had to decide whether to face the flames onboard or dive into the icy and overflowing river. Captain Shields mentioned seeing a mass of humanity in the water all desperately clutching at each other as drowning men are inclined to do. He also saw Captain Mason running about and tossing whatever would float into the river in a desperate attempt to save lives.
Enemies No More
While several ships in the area responded to the disaster, a surprising group rushed forward to help — former Confederates. Frank Fogleman, mayor of Marion, told NPR one of his ancestors is recorded as one of the first responders. He says his ancestor John and his family jumped into the river that night and rescued 25 Union soldiers.
John Fogleman and his family didn’t have a boat but managed to lash a few logs together and waded into the flooded river to save lives. Other former Confederates opened their homes to wounded Union victims. A few months ago, men who would have been shooting at these soldiers now jumped into action to help.
Only about 700 managed to survive the disaster. A mixture was claimed by fire or explosion, while the river took the others. Due to the chaotic nature of the event and disaster, numbers are disputed between sources.
The Outcome Of The Disaster
Union officer Frederick Speed sent near 2,000 men from the parole camp to the Sultana and was pinned with a charge of overcrowding the boat. This charge was dismissed because Speed wasn’t physically at the ship. Another army officer at the dock, George Williams, physically put the men on the boat, but no charges were filed against him. Captain Reuben Hatch quit the army after the disaster and was never punished.
Salecker says the investigation found the patch on the boiler plus the ship being overloaded led to the explosion. The Sultana’s engineer Nathan Wintringer explained that water levels in some of the boilers also shifted from one to another due to the ship listing back and forth. Low water levels eventually caused one of the boilers to overheat, or so he believed.
Despite its magnitude, this disaster is little known in the United States. Jerry Potter chose to write a book about it because he grew up in Memphis and never heard about the event. There is currently a Sultana Disaster Museum temporarily set up in Marion, Arkansas, looking for enough funds for a permanent location.
So, it appears a boat full of unfortunates had the unfortunate timing to face disaster in the middle of a presidential assassination and the end of one of the most traumatizing wars in U.S. history. As a result, not only was no one prosecuted, but the victims were compensated with silence from a tired nation.
The only glimmer out of the disaster was it managed to bring a divided nation together for a night. On April 27, 1865, there were no Union and Confederate soldiers, just drowning men in a river.