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SS Sultana
Ill-fated Sultana, Helena, Arkansas, April 27, 1865.jpg
Sultana near Helena, Arkansas, c.April 26, 1865.
Owner: initially Capt. Pres Lodwick, then a consortium
Port of registry:  United States
Route: St. Louis to New Orleans
Builder: John Litherbury Shipyard, Cincinnati
Launched: January 3, 1863
In service: 1863
Fate: Exploded and sank, April 27, 1865.
General characteristics
Tonnage: 1,719 tons
Propulsion: 34 ft (10 m) diameter paddlewheels
Capacity: 376 passengers and cargo
Crew: 85

Sultana on fire, from Harpers Weekly.

SS Sultana was a Mississippi River side-wheel steamboat that exploded on April 27, 1865 in the greatest maritime disaster in United States history. An estimated 1,800 of its 2,427 passengers died when three of the ship's four boilers exploded and it sank near Memphis.[1] This disaster was overshadowed in the press by other recent events. John Wilkes Booth, President Lincoln's assassin, was killed the day before.

The wooden steamship was constructed in 1863 by the John Litherbury Shipyard in Cincinnati, and intended for the lower Mississippi cotton trade. Registering 1,719 tons,[2] the steamer normally carried a crew of 85. For two years, it ran a regular route between St. Louis and New Orleans, frequently commissioned to carry troops.

The tragedy[]

SS Sultana Memorial at the Mount Olive Baptist Church Cemetery in Knoxville, Tennessee in 2010

Under the command of Captain J. C. Mason of St. Louis, Sultana left New Orleans on April 21, 1865, with 75 to 100 cabin passengers, deck passengers, and numerous head of livestock bound for market in St. Louis. At Vicksburg, it 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 repair was made to reinforce a leaking area. A section of bulged boiler plate was removed, and a patch of lesser thickness than the parent plate was riveted in its place.[3] This repair took about one day, whereas a complete replacement of the boiler would have taken about three days. During its 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 2,000 men crowded aboard.[citation needed]

Sultana disaster historical marker, Marion, AR

Most of the new passengers were Union soldiers, chiefly from Ohio and just released from Confederate prison camps such as Cahawba and Andersonville. The US government had contracted with Sultana to transport these former prisoners of war back to their homes.[citation needed] With a legal capacity of only 376, it was severely overcrowded. Many of the 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.[citation needed]

The cause of the explosion was a leaky and poorly repaired steam boiler. There was reason to believe allowable working steam pressure was exceeded in an attempt to overcome the spring river current.[3] The boiler (or boilers) gave way when the steamer was 7 to 9 miles (11 to 14 km) north of Memphis at 2:00 am.[4] The enormous explosion flung some of the passengers on deck into the water, and destroyed a large section of the ship. Hot coals scattered by the explosion soon turned the remaining superstructure into an inferno, the glare of which was visible as far away as Memphis.[5]

The first boat on the scene was the southbound steamer Bostonia II[6] which arrived at about 3:00 am, an hour after the explosion, and overtook the burning wreck to rescue scores of survivors. The hulk drifted to the west bank of the river, and sank at around dawn near Mound City and present-day Marion, Arkansas. Other vessels joined the rescue, including the steamers Arkansas, Jenny Lind, Essex, and the Navy sidewheel gunboat USS Tyler, manned by volunteers. The ship's regular crew had been discharged days before.[5]

Passengers who survived the initial explosion had to risk their lives in the icy spring runoff of the Mississippi or burn with the ship.[3] 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. Sultana's officers, including Captain Mason, were among those who perished.[5]

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.[citation needed] The Chicago Opera Troupe staged a benefit, the crew of Essex raised $1,000, and the mayor took in three survivors.[5]

Monuments and historical markers to Sultana and its victims have been erected at Memphis; Muncie, Indiana; Marion; Vicksburg; Cincinnati; Knoxville; Hillsdale, Michigan; and Mansfield, Ohio.[citation needed]


No exact death toll is known. Estimates range from 1,300 to 1,900. The official count by the United States Customs Service was 1,800. Final estimates of survivors were between 700 and 800. Many of the dead were interred at the Memphis National Cemetery.


The official cause of the Sultana disaster was determined to be mismanagement of water levels in the boiler, exacerbated by the fact that it was severely overcrowded and top heavy. As the steamship made its way north following the twists and turns of the river, it listed severely to one side then the other. Its 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 the ship'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 earlier.

In 1888, a St. Louis resident named William Streetor claimed that his former business partner, Robert Louden, made a death bed confession of having sabotaged Sultana by a coal torpedo.[7] Louden, a former Confederate agent and saboteur who operated in and around St. Louis, had the opportunity and motive to attack it and 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.[8][9]


An East Tennessee Sultana survivors' group met annually on April 27 (the anniversary of the disaster) until 1928, when just four survivors remained. Then on March 4, 1931 the last survivor,[Clarification needed] Pleasant M. Keeble, died at the age of 85.[5][10] Samuel H. Raudebaugh (Company K, 65th Regiment Ohio Infantry), also a survivor of the disaster, died on December 5, 1931 at the age of 89. Mr. Raudebaugh was a survivor of the battle of Franklin, Tennessee where he was captured and imprisoned at Andersonville. He was onboard Sultana when it blew up and survived the disaster. He later became President of the Sultana Survivors Association.[citation needed][11]

Remnants found[]

In 1982, a local archaeological expedition uncovered what was believed to be the wreckage of Sultana. Blackened wooden deck planks and timbers were found about 32 feet (10 m) under a soybean field on the Arkansas side, about 4 miles (6 km) from Memphis. The Mississippi River has changed course several times since the disaster. The main channel now flows about 2 miles (3 km) east of its 1865 position.[5]


  • Jay Farrar of the band Son Volt wrote a song called "Sultana", paying tribute to "the worst American disaster of the maritime". Farrar calls the ship "the Titanic of the Mississippi" in the song, which was released on the American Central Dust album.[12]
  • Cory Branan - "The Wreck of the Sultana"
  • The band Beehoover also paid tribute with their song "Sultana" which was released on their 2010 Concrete Catalyst album.


The J. Mack Gamble Fund of the Sons and Daughters of Pioneer Rivermen and the Friends and Descendants of the Sultana sponsored a mural by Louisiana artist Robert Dafford and his crew entitled The Sultana Departs from Vicksburg as one of the Vicksburg Riverfront Murals. It was dedicated on April 9, 2005.[13][14]

See also[]

  • List of maritime disasters


  1. Berryman, H.E.; Potter, J.O.; Oliver, S. (1988). "The ill-fated passenger steamer Sultana: an inland maritime mass disaster of unparalleled magnitude". pp. 842–850. 
  2. Berry (1892), p. 7
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Bennett, Robert Frank, CDR USCG (March 1976). "A Case of Calculated Mischief". pp. 77–83. 
  4. Ambrose, Stephen (May 1, 2001). "Remembering Sultana". 
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 Harvey, Hank (October 27, 1996). coverage on Sultana disaster. pp. 3, 6. [Clarification needed]
  6. Potter, Jerry O.. "Sultana: A Tragic Postscipt to the Civil War". 
  7. "The Sultana Disaster (Coal Torpedo theory)". Retrieved 2013-09-08. 
  8. Tidwell, William A. (1995). "April '65". Kent, Ohio: The Kent State University Press. pp. 52. 
  9. "The Sultana: A case for sabotage". December 2001. [Clarification needed]
  10. "Pleasant M. Keeble". Retrieved 2013-09-08. 
  11. "Samuel Henry Raudebaugh". Retrieved 2013-09-08. 
  12. Deusner, Stephen. "American Central Dust". Retrieved 31 January 2013. 
  13. "The Sultana Departs from Vicksburg". Retrieved 2013-09-08. 
  14. Huffman, Alan (October 2009). "Surviving the Worst: The Wreck of the Sultana at the End of the American Civil War". Retrieved 2011-02-07. 

Further reading[]

External links[]

Coordinates: 35°11′26″N 90°6′52″W / 35.19056°N 90.11444°W / 35.19056; -90.11444

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