Focused on Mississippi: The Sultana Disaster

Focused on Mississippi

VICKSBURG, Miss. (WJTV) – The worst maritime disaster in the nation’s history happened just days after the Civil War ended, but there’s a reason the explosion of the Sultana was overshadowed in the headlines.

The boat is now part of the Vicksburg Riverfront Murals painted on the flood wall downtown. The city is where the Sultana picked up its last load of passengers; former Union prisoners of the war. It’s a tragic account of a crippled boat with a leaking boiler that limped into Vicksburg. They crammed as many soldiers as they could on board to carry them north. Nobody knows for sure how many soldiers were on the Sultana. They lost count at 1,400. In all probability, there were more than 2,100 on board in the ship, which was designed to carry 376.

With a hastily patched boiler and a promise to get it better repaired in St. Louis, the Sultana crept out of Vicksburg on the night of April 24, 1865 and headed north against the current of the Mississippi River.

The Sultana almost capsized at Helena, Arkansas, when a photographer snapped a picture of the boat. Everyone wanted to be in it and rushed to that side of the boat. It was the last picture ever taken of the Sultana.

At 2:00 a.m. on April 27, 1865, the patched boilers exploded on the boat, scalding those nearby and dumping the rest into the Mississippi River. It happened just seven miles north of Memphis. At least 1,700 people died, another 500 made it to shore.

So why is the Sultana not better known? The papers hardly had anything about the Sultana, because President Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated on April 15, just 12 days before the explosion. His assassin, John Wilkes Booth, had been killed the day before.

More people died from the Sultana Explosion than died in the sinking of the RMS Titanic.

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