History is an odd subject at times, the events we remember are not always the most important or deserving. On April 27, 1865, over 1,100 souls were lost in an event that is barely remembered because of when it happened and history remembers a bigger event that happened that same day. 

Tragic events sometimes get full days onto themselves and other times they are overshadowed by even bigger ones. On June 24, 2009 actress Farrah Fawcett died after a battle with cancer. Her death on any given day would have been big news but it was pushed aside when pop icon Micheal Jackson suddenly died at the age of 50 on the same day. Another example was on April 16, 1947, when an explosion on the ship SS Grandcamp, triggered a chain of events that lead to the death of 581 people in Texas City, Texas.  It was one of the deadliest industrial disasters ever and yet it was overshadowed even to this day. All because the day before the blast, Brooklyn Dodger Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball. We honor Robinson every year and yet few remember the Texas City blast. 

It all seems like luck as to what is and is not remembered.  And this is where we find our steamship the Sultana. The worst maritime disaster in U.S. history, but I am sure many of you didn’t know that.  But if I said the name John Wilkes Booth, most would know that name and his crime. But before we get to him, let me tell you about the Sultana.

Built in 1863 during the civil war, the sidewheel steamboat was used up and down the lower Mississippi River to haul cotton and sometimes troops. The Wooden ship was designed to carry 376 passengers at a time, a fact that is important to our tale. 

On April 13, 1865, the Sultana left St. Louis for New Orleans, with captain James Mason. On April 15, President Abraham Lincoln was shot at Ford’s Theater and the Sultana helped to spread the word of the death of our beloved president. Reaching Vicksburg, Mississippi, Mason was approached by Cheif quartermaster Reuben Hatch who offered a deal to Mason. Earlier in the month on the 7th, the South surrendered, ending the war, and many prisoners of war needed to be taken up river so they could be sent home from Vicksburg. The U.S. government was offering to pay $2.75 per man to any captain who would take prisoners north. Hatch told Mason he could get him about 1,400 prisoners which would lead to a handsome profit for mason. All mason had to do was give a small kickback to Hatch. 

On April 21, Sultana left New Orleans on its way to pick up its load when a boiler sprang a leak just south of Vicksburg. Making quick repairs while the prisoners were loaded, the repairs didn’t take care of the problem but instead covered them up. This you know will not end well. 

Because of a mix-up, instead of the 1,400 prisoners that Mason thought he was getting, Mason got 1,960 prisoners, all for a ship that was meant to carry just 376. Along with the crew and other paying passengers, 2,137 people were on the boat when it headed back north on April 24. After two days the ship stopped in Memphis to unload some men and cargo. Leaving around midnight from Memphis, the ship had not gone far when around 2:00 a.m. one of the four boilers exploded. Seconds later two more went off.

The Sultana with the prisoners . Picture by Thomas Banks.

The explosion of steam from the boilers tore the pilothouse off the boat. A fire roared thru the ship as prisons jumped into the water, many so weak that they clung to each other. Whole groups of men went down together. Passing by ships rescued men from the icy cold waters but many who didn’t die from the explosion or fire died in the water. Bodies of the dead would be found for months after that deadly night. Sadly many bodies were never found.

The cause of the explosion was many but most point to the bad repairs of the boilers. But in the end, no one was ever held accountable, as Captain Mason was one of those who died. Many did survive that night and the last remaining survivor died on September 8, 1941, just sly of the start of World War 2.

This was a tragic event and one that should be remembered more today, but even at its time, it was overshadowed because the day before John Wiles Booth had been killed. 

If you visit Memphis you can find the Historical marker that I learned about this event near the Mississippi River. Those markers are great to read and learn about the many events that time seems to forget.

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