Monday, April 27, 2015

Fire on the Water: The Burning of the Sultana

“About 50 more dead bodies have been recovered from the wreck of the Sultana.” -- The Nashville Daily Union, May 10, 1865

On April 27th, 1865, the worst maritime disaster in American history took place: the burning of the Sultana on the Mississippi River just outside Memphis. Edward Dudley vividly described the gruesome scene in this April 1865 diary entry:

"The Steamer Sultaner [sic] exploded just above the city on the 27ins. Thare [sic] was 22 hundred passengers aboard mostly paroled federal soldiers, 14 hundred lives lost the boat caught on fire and floated just passed the city and sunk. The stream was gorged with dead bodies."

Built in Cincinnati and first launched on January 3, 1863, the Sultana was a coal-burning steamer with a side-wheel. The Sultana was said to be ultramodern and boasted the most up-to-date safety equipment for its day. During its short lifespan, it often made trips on the Mississippi River between St. Louis and New Orleans, frequently carrying military personnel.

Last & Only Known Extant Photograph of the Sultana & Doomed Passengers. Helena, Arkansas, April 26, 1865. Library of Congress photograph featured on the Tennessee State Library and Archives' "Disasters in Tennessee" online exhibit.

On April 15, 1865, as news quickly spread about President Abraham Lincoln's assassination, the Sultana left Cairo, Illinois. According to Nathan Wintringer, the Sultana’s chief engineer, “as all the wire communications with the south were cut off at that time, the Sultana carried the news of his assassination and death to all points and military posts on the Mississippi river as far as New Orleans.”

On April 21, 1865, the Sultana left New Orleans headed back toward Cairo. Sometime before the ship’s routine stop in Vicksburg, Mississippi, Wintringer discovered a leak in one of the boilers. After docking at Vicksburg, Captain J. Cass Mason ordered mechanics to place a metal patch over the affected area so they could quickly be on their way. Wintringer had the following to say about that supposition:

"Now it was claimed by some at the time that this boiler was not properly repaired, and that was the cause of the explosion. In a short time those boilers were recovered and the one that had been repaired at Vicksburg was found in good condition, whole and intact, and that it was one of the other three that caused the explosion. Now what did cause this explosion? The explosion of the “Walker R. Carter” and “Missouri,” in rapid succession, I think fully answers that question. It was the manner of construction of those boilers. After these three fatal explosions they were taken out of all steamers using them and replaced with the old style of boiler." -- Chester D. Berry’s Loss of the Sultana and Reminiscences of Survivors, 1892

Rev. Chester D. Berry was a Sultana survivor who later published a collection of survivor accounts. Berry recalled that the Sultana arrived in Vicksburg with about 200 total passengers and crew on board. He further described the load that the Sultana took on in Vicksburg:

"She remained here little more than one day; among other things repairing one of her boilers, at the same time receiving on board 1,965 federal soldiers and 35 officers just released from the rebel prisons at Cahaba, Ala., Macon and Andersonville, Ga., and belonging to the States of Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Tennessee, Kentucky, and West Virginia. Besides these there were two companies of infantry under arms, making a grand total of 2,300 souls on board, besides a number of mules and horses, and over one hundred hogsheads of sugar, the latter being in the hold of the boat and serving as ballast." -- Chester D. Berry’s Loss of the Sultana and Reminiscences of Survivors, 1892

While the soldiers had to endure crowded conditions, they were jubilant in the knowledge that the conflict was finished and they were homeward bound. Many survivors recollected that there was great joy - including singing and dancing on board as well as much talk about seeing their homes and loved ones again. Otto Bardon, Company H, 102nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry, USA, recalled “We were put on the steamer, Sultana, - About 2,400 men were on their way to ‘God’s country,’ as we called the North, and we all felt happy to know that we were on our way home and that the war was over (hallelujah, Amen).”

On April 26, 1865, the Sultana docked in Memphis about 6:30 p.m. After off-loading the barrels of sugar and making more repairs to the boiler, the Sultana headed to a coal yard on the west bank of the river in Arkansas. At about 1 a.m. on April 27, the Sultana proceeded out from Memphis and on toward Cairo. About seven miles north of Memphis, the boilers suddenly burst. In a historical sketch by J. H. Curtis for a 1920 article in the Memphis Commercial Appeal, the noise of the explosion was similarly compared to the “noise of a hundred earthquakes, starting with one great explosion which rolled and echoed and re-echoed about the woodlands of Arkansas and Tennessee for several minutes.” Capt. J. Walter Elliott, Company F, 44th Regiment, United States Colored Infantry, commented on the scene:

"I have seen death’s carnival in the yellow-fever and the cholera-stricken city, on the ensanguined field, in hospital and prison, and on the rail; I have, with wife and children clinging in terror to my knees, wrestled with the midnight cyclone; but the most horrible of all were the sights and sounds of that hour. The prayers, shrieks and groans of strong men and helpless women and children are still ringing in my ears, and the remembrance makes me shudder. The sight of 2,000 ghostly, pallid faces upturned in the chilling waters of the Mississippi, as I looked down on them from the boat, is a picture that haunts me in my dreams." -- Chester D. Berry’s Loss of the Sultana and Reminiscences of Survivors, 1892

The resulting loss of life was great. Though the official number of deaths (as recorded by the Customs Department at Memphis) is 1,547, the exact death toll remains unknown. Most estimates fall in the 1,500 to 2,200 range with the average consensus among historians being between 1,700 and 1,800.

As some continued to search for bodies, others undertook the sad duty of notifying loved ones. Pvt. Solomon Bogart, Company F, 3rd Tennessee Cavalry, USA, wrote a letter to his sister, Martha, to inform her that his brother-in-law (Martha’s husband), Henry Marshall Misemer, and two of their brothers, Levi and Harrison Bogart, were killed. On the outside of the letter Bogart writes “lost, lost, all is lost.” He begins the letter by scrawling “horrid Disaster” at the top of the page. Bogart conveys that he is well except for a bruise on his hip which he sustained during the explosion. He also details looking in every hospital all over town for their lost family members. Bogart concludes “they are all lost and their Remains to day lays in the bed of the Mississippi River horrid thought.”

Bogart and his family members all belonged to the regiment that seemed to be the hardest hit by the tragedy, the 3rd Tennessee Cavalry out of East Tennessee. In the days that followed the catastrophe, the 3rd Tennessee were quick to honor their fallen comrades by releasing a memorial resolution on May 15, 1865. The resolution was published in Brownlow’s Knoxville Whig, and Rebel Ventilator on May 31, 1865. The 3rd Tennessee also erected a monument in Knoxville’s Mount Olive Baptist Church Burial Ground. The monument was dedicated at their reunion on July 4, 1916.

Photograph of the dedication of the USS Sultana monument in Knoxville’s Mount Olive Baptist Church burial ground at the 3rd U. S. Cavalry reunion, July 4, 1916, Looking Back at the Civil War in Tennessee Collection.

Photograph of Sultana Survivors Association members from the 3rd U. S. Tennessee Cavalry, Knoxville (Tenn.), circa 1900, Looking Back at the Civil War in Tennessee Collection.

Those lost on the Sultana continue to be remembered. In May of 1989, a monument to Sultana victims was placed in Elmwood Cemetery in Memphis. Perhaps the best summation for the remembrance of the Sultana disaster is in the words of one of its survivors, Cpl. P. S. Atchley, Company K, 3rd Tennessee Cavalry, USA:

"We were highly elated with the thoughts of going home and seeing loved ones, when suddenly, as we were a few miles above Memphis, Tenn., one of her boilers exploded and hundreds of souls were ushered into eternity. My experience on that terrible morning no pen can write nor tongue can tell. I was thrown into the surging waves of that mighty river, into the jaws of death, and life depended on one grand effort, expert swimming, which I did successfully, and after swimming six or seven miles, according to statements given by citizens living on the banks of the river, landed on the Arkansas shore without any assistance whatever. There I found a confederate soldier who came to my relief, and took me to a house near by, and gave me something to eat, and I felt something like myself again, thanks to the Great Ruler of the Universe. The said confederate soldier worked hard to save the lives of the drowning men, and brought to shore in his little dugout about fifteen of them…I will close by wishing God to bless every survivor." -- Chester D. Berry’s Loss of the Sultana and Reminiscences of Survivors, 1892

For additional information on the Sultana tragedy, please visit TSLA’s online exhibit, “Disasters in Tennessee.”

Monument to Sultana victims placed at Elmwood Cemetery in May 1989, Memphis (Tenn.), August 18, 2011, Photograph by William M. Thomas, Exhibits Committee Photograph Collection.

The State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State.


  1. Too bad the research missed the fact that the Sultana was a sidewheel steamboat.

  2. Thanks for commenting. There are so many historical details contained within this story that, perhaps, you overlooked the following sentence in the fourth paragraph:

    "Built in Cincinnati and first launched on January 3, 1863, the Sultana was a coal-burning steamer with a side-wheel."

    Thank you for your interest in this article. We're glad it resonated with you.