SS Sultana: Mystery at Sea
I often wonder why some historical events are well remembered, while others are all but forgotten. Is it the magnitude of the event, like the destruction of the Twin Towers? Maybe it’s the mystery and intrigue like the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby. Or perhaps it’s the personal stories that accompany an event, as in the sinking of the Titanic? I’ve been pondering this and it seems to me that, when it comes to reserving a place in the history books, timing is important. In short, if you want to make sure an event is remembered, it helps if it happens during a slow news cycle.
Today we’re going to talk about an oft forgotten historical event that had an impressive magnitude. It had plenty of mystery and intrigue. The personal stories are captivating. It also had the misfortune of occurring during one of the busiest news cycles this country has ever known. We’re talking about the sinking of the SS Sultana, which happened in April of 1865, in what was one whale of a busy news month! General Lee had surrendered. President Lincoln was assassinated. John Wilkes Booth was killed. The nation was desperately seeking balance and normality. But the story of the Sultana is far too big for us to simply let it go down with the ship!
Time Keeps Flowing Like a River
What a difference a half hour can make! At 1:30am on April 27, 1865, the steamboat Sultana was cruising down the Mississippi River, near Memphis, Tennessee. The estimated 2,400 people aboard consisted of recently released Union Army prisoners of war, other Union soldiers, some civilian passengers who had traveled to accompany their family members home, and the ship’s crew.
When you’re on your way home after having been a prisoner of war, it’s probably easy to be lulled into believing your worst days are behind you. But, a lot can change in a half hour! By 2:00am on the same day, the passengers of the Sultana were flying through the air, clinging to life on stray pieces of debris, or sinking to the bottom of Ol’ Man River like a bag of rocks.
Approximately 1,800 people lost their lives in the disaster, which is widely recognized as the worst accident in U.S. maritime history. That’s close to 300 more casualties than the Titanic can claim, but oddly, the story didn’t even make front-page news. No one was ever held responsible for the wreck and the mystery behind the sinking of the Sultana was never definitively solved, though there are some interesting theories.
One thing is for sure; there was an explosion of explosive proportions in the boiler room. Though it was primarily carrying soldiers, the Sultana was not owned by the U.S. military. It was privately owned and had been contracted by the War Department to transport POWs home. Now, a boat filled with soldiers doesn’t simply explode without some investigation being launched. While survivors were still being dragged out of the river on hunks of driftwood, representatives of the War Department were on the scene questioning eyewitnesses.
The explosion, by some eyewitness accounts, created a gaping hole in the wooden deck. Without the boilers to support the smokestacks, the smokestacks fell. One fell smack-dab through the newly created hole in the deck. But, why did at least one of the four boilers explode?
A crack in one of the boilers had been hastily repaired before the Sultana picked up passengers. The man doing the patch job had been ordered to do the impossible—to perform a 72-hour repair in less than a day. You may be thinking that’s the end of the story. And you might have been right if not for the reason behind rushing the repair work. Greed!
Keeping a Head Above Water
The government was paying a fare of $5 per man for passage on the Sultana. And steamboat captains were offering a kickback of $1.15 per passenger to any corrupt army officer willing to fill their boats. The Sultana was approved to carry 376 passengers. Hmm… $1.15 x 376 = $432.40. That’s not a bad profit, but, as I’ve already mentioned, there were about 2,400 people aboard the Sultana. Even subtracting the crewmembers, that equaled a lot more profit for a corrupt officer!
People were crammed onto the boat like sardines! The newly reinforced Hurricane deck was no match for the weight of the passengers. The deck sagged like a hammock with an overweight occupant. Did all of the sagging cause a sort of collapse into the boiler room? Possibly. But that’s still not the end of the theories.
Drop a Bombshell
Other people believed the explosion was the result of something far more sinister than a faulty boiler. There was talk of a bomb placed by a Confederate spy. At least one survivor felt a Confederate sympathizer had placed a torpedo in the coal in order to kill a boatload of Union soldiers before Johnny could go marching home again. That idea actually isn’t as far-fetched as you might think.
The boat had arrived in Memphis on April 26th, where it had crossed the river to Hopefield, Arkansas. In Hopefield, the crew of the Sultana loaded 1,000 bushels of coal onto the steamship from midnight to about 1:00am on the 27th. That would have been a prime opportunity for a Confederate boat burner to sabotage the steamboat. Is this simply a crazy conspiracy theory? Maybe not.
According to Union documents, boat burners destroyed over 60 steamboats during the Civil War. With the help of small torpedoes disguised to look like pieces of coal, the wooden boats went up like kindling at a bomb fire.
Enter, stage left: A Confederate spy named Robert Louden. Louden had escaped from a Union prison in 1864, after being found guilty by a military tribunal of burning the steamboat Ruthland, and causing the death of 26 passengers. Louden was still at large in 1865. Twenty-three years after the Sultana burned, an article was published in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat claiming that in 1867, a drunken Robert Louden had bragged about sabotaging the Sultana. If true, it was the largest act of terrorism in the U.S. until the events of September 11, 2001.
The Rest is History
So, what caused the explosion of the Sultana? Was it the result of an improperly patched boiler? Was it because of the severe overcrowding on the boat? Or was it the sabotage of someone who wasn’t ready to embrace a Confederate surrender? The truth is, we may never know. But it’s worth contemplating… On a slow news day.