Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Worst Ship Accident in American History Occurred in Tennessee

It might seem logical to guess that the deadliest maritime disaster in United States history occurred somewhere off the Pacific or Atlantic coast, but it didn't. In fact, that sad distinction belongs to a spot about seven miles north of Memphis in the Mississippi River.

On this date in 1865, a boiler aboard the steamboat Sultana exploded, killing many people immediately and forcing others to take their chances swimming to safety in the river's cold waters.

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

The Sultana, a typical coal-burning steamer built in 1863, was used to move people and goods along the Mississippi River during and immediately following the Civil War. On April 21, 1865, it departed from New Orleans on a northward run. By the time the boat reached Vicksburg, Mississippi, the ship's engineer discovered leaks in the boilers, which required some hasty repairs. The ship also took on 1,800 to 2,000 passengers who were former Union soldiers anxious to return home after being held captive at Confederate prison camps at Cahaba, Alabama and Andersonville, Georgia.

The dangerously-overloaded boat continued to Memphis, where more boiler repairs were made. The ship then headed north again around 1 a.m. on April 27, making it only a few miles before the accident. (The Mississippi River, of course, defines most of the border between Tennessee and Arkansas. However, because of shifts in the river's course, the wreckage from Sultana was actually found years later in a field in Arkansas.)

Many people were killed by the explosion and the fire that followed, while others either drowned or died of exposure while waiting to be rescued from the river. The official death toll is recorded as 1,547, although some historians believe about 1,800 may have actually perished. For comparison, about 1,500 people died when The Titanic sunk in the north Atlantic 47 years later.

Last & Only Known Extant Photograph of the Sultana & Doomed Passengers
Helena, Arkansas, April 26, 1865
Library of Congress

Within hours after the Sultana's explosion, General C.C. Washburn, commanding officer of the United States Army at Memphis, appointed a military commission to investigate the tragedy. Eventually, three separate inquiries were launched to determine what caused the explosion.

The theories included a bomb placed aboard by a Confederate sympathizer, inadequate water management within the boilers, faulty repairs to the boilers or overcrowding on the ship. Frederick Speed, the ship's captain, was found guilty of "neglect of duty" and court martialed, but that decision was later reversed.

Oddly enough, the disaster drew relatively little media attention at the time it occurred. That may be partially attributed to the public's numbness to the death toll numbers from the Civil War and partially to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, which had happened only a few days before the incident. For those reasons, the explosion aboard the Sultana is a little-known chapter in Tennessee and American history.

To read more about the Sultana and other Tennessee disasters, visit:

Learn more about the Sultana disaster here:

And you can also read our previous post about the Sultana in this blog entry from 2015:

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

No comments:

Post a Comment