The accident happened at 2 a.m., when three of the steamship’s four boilers exploded. The reason the death toll was almost exactly equal to the number of Union troops killed at the battle of Shiloh (1,758) was gross government incompetence. The Sultana was legally registered to carry 376 people. She had six times more than that on board, due to the bribery of army officers and the extreme desire of the former POWs to get home.
Historians Stephen Ambrose and Douglas Brinkley are sailing the Mississippi River aboard the steamboat Delta Queen from New Orleans to Memphis to research their upcoming book Mississippi: River of History.As they make their way to Memphis, Tennessee, National Geographic News will be posting photos and stories of the history they encounter on “Big Muddy.”
On April 27, 1865, the steamboat Sultana, some seven miles north of Memphis, Tennessee, carrying 2,300 just-released Union prisoners of war, plus crew and civilian passengers, exploded and sank. Some 1,700 people died.
It was the worst maritime disaster in U.S. history, more costly than even the April 14, 1912 sinking of the Titanic, when 1,517 people were lost. But because the Sultana went down when it did, the disaster was not well covered in the newspapers or magazines, and was soon forgotten. It is scarcely remembered today.
April 1865 was a busy month; On April 9, at Appomattox Couthouse, Virginia, General Robert E. Lee surrendered. Five days later President Abraham Lincoln was assasinated. On April 26 his assassin, John Wilkes Booth, was caught and killed. That same day General Joseph Johnson surrendered the last large Confederate army. Shortly thereafter Union troops captured Confederate President Jefferson Davis. The Civil War was over. Northern newspapers rejoiced.
News of a terrible steamboat tragedy was relegated to the newspaper’s back pages. In a nation desensitized to death, 1,700 more did not seem such an enormous tragedy that it does today.