People In the River: SS Sultana

Sultana in Helena, Arkansas, April 27, 1865 Courtesy Library of Congress

Built in 1863, the Sultana was meant to be expendable, as other steamboats were. Most ended their short lives due to boiler explosions. She was built to carry 376 passengers. Later her original owners sold her to J. Cass Mason and a group of other men. Mason would go on to command the ship to the end of the Civil War (1861-1865). Curiously, his crew kept an alligator for a mascot.

In mid and late April America was reeling in the wake of the assassination of  Abraham Lincoln, a mere six days after the surrender at Appomattox. In the South, Union prisoners were being released from prison camps such as Andersonville, loaded onto steamers and taken North. However, corrupt deals were being made between officials and the steamer captains. Loading the boats down with as many people as they could, the trips were rather dangerous but profitable to those in charge. One such boat getting into the act was the Sultana. Still captained by Mason the Sultana had suffered a boiler leak while on her way from New Orleans to Vicksburg. But not wanting to miss out on the extra cash to be made, Mason had the crew make insufficient repairs to the boilers, ‘patching’ it up with a thinner plate.

Andersonville Courtesy Wikipedia

The Sultana already had quite a few passengers aboard when the over 2,000 paroled soldiers were put aboard.  The dishonest Colonel Reuben Hatch expressed the desire that some of the soldiers be moved onto the Pauline Carroll that was docked next to the Sultana. However, that was not to be. Even Mason was beginning to have second thoughts as the soldiers continued to come aboard. The Sultana had gone far beyond her maximum capacity, and he had reason to worry. Towards the end of the loading a group of soldiers refused to board the Sultana, seeing the practically deserted Pauline Carroll nearby. Why not board her? Because the Pauline Carroll was suffering from a bout of smallpox, an officer lied.

To hold the dangerous amount of human cargo, supports had to be employed on the steamer and passengers repositioned to ensure the decks didn’t fall through. The Sultana could’ve easily been in danger of capsizing and on April 26th that nearly happened. In Helena, Arkansas the crowds on the Sultana moved to port wanting to be included in a photo taken by someone on shore. The boat began to list, before order was stored.

The Sultana arrived in Memphis, stopping to take off cargo and passengers, before again heading out. It was 3:30 AM April 27th, when the Sultana suffered a boiler explosion. Astonishingly, a few of the parolees were not awaken by the explosion although it was heard on the Arkansas shore. A man named George Robinson woke up to find himself badly burned and in the coal bin. The man who had been asleep next to him was dead and the steamer on fire. Another man was awakened when he was hurled through the air and into the Mississippi River. With the quickly spreading fire, those who could not do it for themselves asked people to throw them overboard, preferring rather to drown. Commodore Smith summed it up well, stating it was

the hardest task of my life

In their rush to get away, crowds trampled people underfoot. Many could not swim and at times even when they had something for buoyancy, they drowned. A mad dash was made for the Sultana’s yawl, and those who were lucky or unlucky enough to get a spot on it fought off their fellow humanity. When they cut the lines, the yawl landed upside down in the river drowning most of its occupants. Mason threw shutters into the water for the drowning to get a hold of. Sadly, in their struggle many ended up drowning each other. On the Sultana so many had been burned to death. Ohioan William Lugenbeal bayoneted the crew’s alligator and took the crate it was kept in. Throwing the crate overboard he followed it over the side and crawled inside of it. Lugenbeal fought off swimmers, afraid they would swamp his craft.

Sultana Courtesy Wikipedia

In Memphis the Pocahontas’ crew could see something was lit up farther on up the river and assumed it was a boat on fire although they took no action. In Mound City, Arkansas citizens were awakened by the Sultana’s explosion. Those that had boats set out to rescue some of the swimmers. However, they were lacking any type of craft, due to the fact they had been destroyed by Union forces who saw them as a possible tool for Confederate guerrillas. There were of course a few hidden away, which were used to aid the Sultana victims. A Confederate officer, Frank Barton, who had been camped nearby helped pull survivors to safety. John Fogleman of Arkansas noticed that a group of men were still on the burning hull of the Sultana fighting off advancing flames. Throwing together a raft Fogleman and others made for what was left of the Sultana and began taking off six men at a time. They managed to get them all off in the nick of time, pulling away just as the Sultana sank. At Fort Pickering the Essex was shot at by a sentry, when refusing to come to shore. Despite the frequent ‘shower’ of bullets, the crew of the Essex continued to pick up survivors. The survivors were also shot at as they begged for help.

Out in the river some were on edge wondering about the alligator’s whereabouts. Others had to be worried about whirlpools or their ‘life preservers’ (i.e. logs, mules, horses, etc.) being taken away.  The Bostonia II arrived on the scene, throwing bales of hay into the water for survivors to grab onto.  The General Boynton was forced to turn back to Memphis seeing the mass of humanity in the river. Already the living and dead were beginning to drift towards Memphis. Vessels were soon dispatched to the scene of the accident.

With the day dawning the dead and living could be seen strewn about the river. Survivors were taken to Memphis and treated at hospitals. Tragically about 1,800, although no one can say for sure, souls were lost. The bodies would continue to be found in the coming weeks having drifted downriver. An average of 250 later died in hospitals, bringing the amount of survivors down to about 450. It’s all the more sad in that the parolees had survived the Civil War and prison camps only to die on their way home.

For further reading consider Sultana by Alan Huffman. It is very informative and should prove even more interesting to Hoosiers since it does trace the service of some Indiana soldiers from their wartime escapades to the prison camps. Towards the end Huffman offers a brief epilogue of their lives as well. The account of the Sultana disaster is very detailed.

Source: Sultana: Surviving the Civil War, Prison and the Worst Maritime Disaster in American History


21 thoughts on “People In the River: SS Sultana

  1. I have long intended on reading Huffman’s book, so your post reminds me that I have another reason to put the title on my intellectual “to-do” list. However, your essay is an excellent summary of the events, which (unfortunately) I tend to remember only as a sad footnote to Civil War history. Please keep writing about maritime matters. This nation is built on the frequent use of seapower and our transportation infrastructure still relies heavily on waterways. You are examining an interesting and relevant topic.


  2. Excellent synopsis of a mostly forgotten disaster. I read Huffman’s book last year and found it extremely well done. Your second-to-last paragraph is the thing that kept resonating in my mind as I read about the horrors of the Sultana: To have survived the Civil War and a POW camp, only to die while headed home. It must have been very hard for the families of the dead to comprehend.


  3. Another great article. You certainly know your maritime history. The Sultana was one of those stories I read as a boy. Of course, growing up in the south, quite a bit was made about the sentries shooting at the mostly southern rescuers.
    I am wondering which ship you will right about next. I enjoy coming back to find out.
    Good job.


  4. Pingback: Good bye Exxon Valdez | Ships on the Shore

  5. Hello! I wanted to stop by to thank you for your comment on my blog, about my Titanic posts. It is wonderful to know that some people are reading my posts and enjoying the details I’ve found along the way. You really seem to know so many things about ships… I was slightly overwhelmed when I arrived at your blog… there’s so much! I love your blog already, and can’t wait to do some more exploring. It is only in the past year that I dived into a project about the Titanic, and I haven’t even touched the tip of the iceberg (pun intended!) on what I still want to research. It’s such a fascinating & ever-mysterious subject.

    I hope you’ll continue reading my Titanic posts over the next few days, and have yourself a lovely Easter weekend! I’ll be back to your blog again soon to explore some more.
    ~ Tarissa


    • I will definitely be checking back at your blog and am thoroughly enjoying it. Loved your Corrie ten Boom post.

      As for my blog you can tell I’m a sucker for maritime subjects, mainly Titanic. Thanks for stopping by!


  6. I honestly think this wasn’t accidental they wanted the convicts to die cause they felt they were a menace the America but I don’t know so all im gonna say is if it was on purpose there paying for it right know and regardless of what the people did they didn’t deserve to die like that so R.I.P to all the Dead inmates


    • In my own humble opinion, I don’t so much that is was purposely orchestrated (when viewed a certain way it could be), as it was greed. A penny pinched was a life lost. Horrible event in which so many suffered. I wish it could have ended better. It had to be a very bitter disappointment surviving their time in POW camps only to die on the trip home.

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts.


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