‘Scalded beyond recovery’, diving into the Sultana Disaster of 1865

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Explosion of the Steamer Sultana, April 28, 1865. Harpers Weekly, May 20, 1865. Courtesy: Library of Congress

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – When you think of devastating maritime disasters, for many, the Titanic tragedy of 1912 instantly comes to mind. But 47 years before that, some historians believe an even more devastating disaster happened in Tennessee.

On April 27, 1865, the steamer Sultana burst into flames on the Mississippi River, seven miles north of Memphis.

News 2’s Alex Corradetti spoke with Myers Brown, Director or Archival Collection Services at the Tennessee State Library and Archives building about the devastating event just after the Civil War.

“There is still a few Confederate armies in the field, but most of the union POWs [prisoners of war] had been released from Confederate prison camps. They’re being sent to Vicksburg so they can catch a boat headed back up the Mississippi River. And so the Sultana is there. It is contracted to carry these men back up north,” explained Brown.

Myers said the captain of the Sultana made a decision that would end up costing more than 1,000 lives.

“The captain seeing probably more dollars than cents just decides to pack the Sultana full of men. He has a boat that’s only rated to carry about 370 something people, but he puts somewhere between 1,800 and 2,000 people on the ship. Mainly military,” said Myers.

Myers said as the captain tried to keep steam going as they headed north up the Mississippi River, the boiler couldn’t handle it.

“The boiler gets overheated and then it ruptures. When it explodes, it sends boiling hot water steam throughout the ship, opens the fireboxes and catches the wooden ship on fire. The ship started to collapse,” said Myers.

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The men on board tried to jump off the burning ship as quickly as they could. However, the men were then faced with the icy waters of the Mississippi River. Some of them drowned and others died from hypothermia.

“They estimate from that somewhere between 1,200 and 1,500 people died during this episode. It goes down in American history as the worst maritime disaster in U.S. history. And it’s very much a Tennessee story,” explained Myers.

Myers said a lot of the people who were rescued from the water were taken to hospitals in the Memphis area.

“Tennessee had more men on the vessel than any other state except Ohio. There’s over 300 Tennesseans who die in the Sultana episode,” Myers added, “Most were from the third Tennessee Calvary U.S., who were Tennessee unionists who had been captured earlier in the war. They survived prison camps and now they’re on their way home and then this happens.”

Most of those Tennesseans were from Blount, Sevier and Knox Counties. Myers said this devastating historical event is often overlooked.

“The Sultana exploded on April 27th. On the 26th, is when John Wilkes Booth had been killed – the man who assassinated Lincoln. So, that moves to kind of the top of the headlines.” Myers continued, “And then also on the 26th, the day before, one of the last major Confederate Army still in the field had surrendered. So, all of these things had pushed the Sultana story kind of to the back page of the newspapers at the time.”

Myers said the event was never forgotten by the people who had loved ones in that regiment. Many of them suffered horrific deaths.

“Many of the men were scalded beyond recovery from the boiling water or the steam. Others burned when the ship caught fire. Actually, the Sultana would burn to the water line. So, there’s very little left of it. Just about all of the crew died because the boilers went straight up through the crew compartment. The captain was certainly killed almost instantaneously,” said Myers.

Myers said it was not unheard of to overpack a ship at the time.

“This one was like all the factors were in place for a tragedy. You have greed involved. You have overpacking of the ship. Based on that greed, you have a situation where you’re going upstream. The actual investigation indicated that the real problem was that there was not enough water in the boilers to begin with. You have some level of incompetency, maybe among the crew, who didn’t keep the water levels up enough within the boilers,” said Myers.

Myers believed it is important to share this story for future generations as it represents the last tragic footnote of a very tragic war.

“You’ve got 650,000 Americans who lose their lives in the American Civil War. Then after you think it’s finally all over, the dying is done, the killing is done, then there’s this episode that happens on the very heels of it,” Myers said.

Myers said these men deserved to be remembered.

“Just because they didn’t die at Gettysburg, Chickamauga or Stones River, they still did their duty. They served their country, and they just kind of got shifted to the backburner. The men who did survive it, they never forgot. They continued to have survivor meetings until the very last one died in the 1920’s. So, they never remembered their comrades who had gone through this with them,” explained Myers.

Myers wrote a book called Images of Tennessee’s Confederates. It’s about Tennessee’s Unionist Calvary, and also goes into more detail about the Sultana disaster.

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