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Taken by the Sea: 11 Real-life Shipwrecks


8
The Sultana
Sultana passing Helena, Arkansas, on April 27, 1865 (left) and artist's rendition of the explosion of the Sultana on April 28, 1865
Sultana passing Helena, Arkansas, on April 27, 1865 (left) and artist's rendition of the explosion of the Sultana on April 28, 1865
Photo courtesy Library of Congress

Most people have never heard of the Sultana, although her wreck is the worst one in U.S. history. Other news, like the assassination of President Lincoln, overshadowed the tragedy.

The Sultana was a passenger steamship on the Mississippi River. In April 1865, the Civil War had just ended, and Sultana was carrying thousands of Union POWs back North after their release from captivity. After the war, the government paid passenger ships for each soldier they ferried home. Sultana was approved to carry 376 passengers. When she cast off from New Orleans in April, headed for Cincinnati, she was carrying as many as 2,500, most of them ex-POWs who were weak, sick or injured. She also had several troubled boilers onboard. They'd been leaking on previous voyages and were always quickly repaired. On this trip, Sultana had to repair her boilers several times before the ship docked at Memphis for a regular stop. At Memphis, the crew again repaired the boilers, and Sultana left for Cairo, Illinois, just after midnight on April 27. Most of the soldiers would disembark at Cairo.

Sultana was moving against a strong current, severely overloaded, and she was making little headway. The boilers couldn't handle her load: At about 2:00 a.m., they exploded, breaking the ship in half. The force of the explosion killed many passengers and threw others hundreds of feet into the water. The ship was immediately a ball of flames, and there were no life boats, so anyone still alive jumped into the water. Many of the soldiers couldn't swim, and those who could were weakened by their ordeal during the war. Hardly any of them survived. More than 1,500 and possibly as many as 1,900 people died. The exact number is unknown because there was no accurate passenger manifest.

The Sultana shipwreck got hardly any press -- the Civil War had just ended, President Lincoln had been assassinated a week and a half before and there was a manhunt on for John Wilkes Booth. The deaths of a shipload of soldiers just released from POW camps hardly registered in the public's awareness at the time.