A Civil War-era riverboat tragedy

With our minds still reeling from the South Korean ferry tragedy that killed more than 300 people, it’s hard to imagine a worst disaster. But in terms of lives lost, the Sultana explosion may well be the most catastrophic passenger boat accident ever. The exact count of the dead is indeterminate. The riverboat was impossibly overloaded with Union soldiers, Civil War prison camp survivors, and no manifest had been created. Estimates range from 1,500 to 1,900 dead. Several hundred of the estimated 2,300 on board survived.

The Sultana was legally allowed to carry 376, including a crew of 85, but recently liberated Union soldiers had gathered in Vicksburg, Miss., and were desperately looking for a way north. According to historical reports, they wedged themselves into every possible space on the steam-powered sidewheeler for the trip up the Mississippi.

The boat’s engineers had been having problems with the coal-fired boilers, which had required several repairs in the days immediately preceding the disaster. When the boilers finally blew, the boat was laboring upriver just north of Memphis, Tenn., in the middle of the night. According to an account called “Death of the Dark River,” the explosion “sent an orange-colored flame boiling up into the black sky. A sudden stabbing pillar of fire that lit up the black, swirling river and was visible for miles.”

The tragedy was compounded by the plight of the passengers. Most were sick, exhausted Union soldiers recently released from Confederate prisoner-of-war camps in the South. Most perished, either from the explosion and fire or by drowning.

I must admit that I had never heard of the Sultana accident until I saw that blurb in the newspaper. And, according to historical accounts, the disaster wasn’t that well known even at the time. It happened only 11 days after President Lincoln’s assassination and the nation had other things on its mind at the end of one of our bloodiest wars.

The Titanic accident, which claimed 1,514 lives in 1912, is much more well known, of course, and helped spur changes in safety and survival preparedness. The Sultana didn’t have anywhere near the same impact, but it nonetheless deserves to be remembered. 

About the author

Bruce Buls

With a degree in English literature from the University of Washington (Go Dawgs!), journalism experience at the once-upon-a-time Seattle P-I, and at-sea experience as a commercial fisherman in Washington and Alaska, Bruce Buls has forged a career in commercial marine trade journalism, including stints at Alaska Fishermen’s Journal and National Fisherman, WorkBoat’s sister publications. Bruce spent 16 years as WorkBoat's technical editor before retiring in May 2015. He lives on Puget Sound’s Whidbey Island, about 20 miles north of Seattle (go 'Hawks!).

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