The steamboat Sultana was a Mississippi River paddle wheeler destroyed in an explosion on 27 April 1865. This resulted in the greatest maritime disaster in United States history.
An estimated 1,800 of the 2,400 passengers were killed when one of the ship's four boilers exploded and the steamboat 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, she 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 her 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. With a legal capacity of only 376, the Sultana was severely overcrowded. Many of her 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 gave way when the steamer was about 7 to 9 miles north of Memphis at 2:00 A.M. in a terrific explosion that sent some of the passengers on deck into the water and destroyed 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 side-wheel gunboat USS Tyler, manned by volunteers. Her 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.No exact death toll is known. Estimates range from 1,300 to 1,900. The official count by the United States Customs Service was 1,547. Modern historians tend to concur on a figure of «up to 1,800». Final estimates of survivors were 700-800.
The official cause of the Sultana disaster was determined to be mismanagement of water levels in the boiler, exacerbated by «careening». The steamboat Sultana was severely overcrowded and top heavy. As she made her way north following the twists and turns of the river, she listed severely to one side then the other. The Sultana's four boilers were interconnected and mounted side-by-side, so that if the ship tipped sideways, water would tend to run out of the highest boiler.
With the fires still going against the empty boiler, this created hot spots. When the ship tipped the other way, water rushing back into the empty boiler would hit the hot spots and flash instantly to steam, creating a sudden surge in pressure. This effect of careening could have been minimized by maintaining high water levels in the boilers. The official inquiry found that Sultana's boilers exploded due to the combined effects of careening, low water level, and a faulty repair to a leaky boiler made a few days previously. In 1888, a St. Louis resident named William Streetor claimed that his former business partner, Robert Louden, made a deathbed confession of having sabotaged the Sultana by a coal torpedo. Louden was a former Confederate agent and saboteur who operated in and around St. Louis.Louden had the opportunity and motive to attack the Sultana. He may have had access to the means. (Thomas Edgeworth Courtenay, the inventor of the coal torpedo, was a former resident of St. Louis and was involved in similar acts of sabotage against Union shipping interests.)
Supporting Louden's claim are eyewitness reports that a piece of artillery shell was observed in the wreckage. Louden's claim is controversial, however, and most scholars support the official explanation.
A subsequent enquiry into the SULTANA disaster, although critical of some of those involved, held no one person responsible. The true cause of this tragedy was greed, prompting the hasty departure of the SULTANA without adequate boiler repairs. The owners would have received five dollars for each enlisted man carried and ten dollars for each officer.