The fate of the SS Sultana is shrouded in controversy. Whether it was a profit-motive to take on too many soldiers, a murder conspiracy theory involving a coal torpedo or the mis-management of water levels in a damaged and badly-repaired boiler (as the official inquiry revealed), this was one of the worst maritime disasters in the United States.
The SS Sultana, a Mississippi side-wheel steamboat exploded and sank near Memphis, Tennessee on April 27, 1865, reportedly killing over 1,500 of the 2,427 people aboard. She was registered to carry just 376.
Built in 1863, the Sultana sailed between St. Louis and New Orleans for the cotton trade. She often carried passengers, cargo and livestock, but she was also commissioned to carry military troops.
On April 21, Sultana departed New Orleans but stopped at Vicksburg to make boiler repairs and take on more passengers. Instead of calling for a leaking boiler to be replaced, which would have taken three days, Captain J.C. Mason decided a patch would do the job. Even so, the repair took one day. Meanwhile, the steamer, which was also contracted by the U.S. government to take former prisoners of war home, would become overloaded by taking on too many Union soldiers eager to make a fresh start.
The faulty boiler and added load strain on Sultana would soon give way. Her four boilers were mounted side-by-side. While navigating the twists and turns of the Mississippi River, she listed heavily from side to side. Water would run out of the highest boiler and subsequently back in, creating hot spots that would be ignited by the fires inside. The end result increased the amount of steam generated and a major excess in pressure. If the water in the boilers had been kept at the correct level, the tragedy could have been avoided.
After making a few scheduled stops, when Sultana was about nine miles from Memphis in the wee hours of April 27, three of the four boilers exploded, sending many deck passengers directly into the water. The ship quickly succumbed to fire from the hot coals that had scattered after being flung from the explosion. A huge fire ball could be seen from Memphis. Several vessels, including the USS Tyler, a Navy sidewheel gunboat, arrived to rescue those they could. Many survivors with major burns would later die in hospital.
In 1982, blackened wooden deck planks and timbers were found under a soybean field on the Arkansas side of the river near Memphis. It is believed they are from the SS Sultana.
© Copyright Vince Capone 2013