A terrible disaster that went virtually unnoticed. Accident on the ship "Sultana" (6 photos)

Category: Nostalgia, Ships, PEGI 0+
21 December 2023

In the 19th century, paddle steamers were widespread in the United States. The country had an underdeveloped road and railway network, and it was necessary to transport ever-increasing volumes of cargo over vast distances as quickly as possible. It is not surprising that ships with paddle wheels on their sides, slowly but steadily chugging up the river, are strongly associated with Westerns, cowboys, Indians and other attributes of the “Wild West”.

"Sultana", April 26, 1865. The photo shows decks packed with people freed from captivity

One of the largest paddle steamers operating on the river arteries of the United States in those years was the Sultana. Measuring over 80 meters long and 13 meters wide, with three decks and a capacity of up to 1,720 tons, this ship could carry 276 passengers in its cabins, and their total number could reach 700 people. The ship was traveling on the route St. Louis - New Orleans.

The American Civil War resulted in the sinking or damage of most of the river fleet. Thus, only three ships remained on the above-mentioned route, including the Sultana. In April 1865, shortly after the end of the Civil War, a decision was made to transport the freed prisoners of war from the Northern States home as quickly as possible. At Vicksburg, one of the most important ports on the Mississippi in the southern states, prisoners from four prisons were collected, creating incredible crowds. However, due to a shortage of ships, almost all the people were loaded onto the Sultana. Modern data differ somewhat in numbers, but on average it is believed that about three and a half times more passengers were on board the ship at once than expected - about 3 thousand people including the crew.

This overload was most likely caused by confusion in the documents. In addition, one of the boilers on the ship was damaged. In a short time they managed to repair it using a makeshift method. All this was aggravated by orders from army officers who demanded that the released prisoners be delivered home as soon as possible. There were so many people on the ship that the wooden decks began to sag, and they were propped up with planks. Despite the complex technical problems on the ship, there was a cheerful atmosphere among the soldiers eager to go home.

As one of them recalled:

“When we boarded the ship, fun reigned on its decks, as if at a wedding. I have never seen a more joyful crowd in my life than these poor hungry guys. Most of them were held captive for a long time, some even for two years, many of them were wounded. In happy anticipation of soon seeing their father's house, they did not pay attention to this terrible cramped space. On the lower decks the soldiers lay close to each other. Everyone had one cherished dream - to get home faster."

Comparison of the sizes of the Titanic and the Sultana

In addition to the malfunction and hastily carried out repairs, problems with sea water were added. The fact is that the steam boilers that used it for work had to be turned off every now and then to clean out the clay and sand that clogged the mechanisms. “Sultana” stopped every now and then to blow out the cars. On April 26, the ship moored at the port of Memphis to replenish supplies, and at midnight set off again. The part of the journey ahead of him was quite difficult and required precise navigation, so the captain himself took the helm. Swimming was also complicated by the extremely dark night. According to eyewitnesses' descriptions, the people on board took up all the free space and slept side by side just on the deck. And some of them even spent the night in the engine room.

At two in the morning on April 27, the ship passed by the Tagleman pier. And after another forty minutes there was an explosion.

"Sultana" burning after an explosion, drawing from the American magazine Harper's Weekly, 1865

At 02.40 local time, about eight miles upriver from the Memphis pier, the same poorly repaired steam boiler exploded at the Sultana. The power of the explosion was such that one of the chimneys was torn out and thrown far into the water, and the second collapsed on the bow of the ship. Due to the explosion, the entire central part of the ship collapsed inside the ship, burying the sleeping people. And, as if this were not enough, a huge fire started almost immediately. The second steam engine was not damaged and continued to operate at full capacity, propelling the ship forward. As a result, a strong headwind, like a bellows, fanned the fire in just a few minutes to incredible proportions.

The panic began. Uncomprehending, frightened passengers jumpedinto the water to escape the fire. According to eyewitnesses, there were so many of them that at some point, throwing themselves overboard, people fell not into the river, but onto other people. The width of the Mississippi at the site of the explosion was about five kilometers. Most of the liberated soldiers were weakened and exhausted by long captivity and could not stay afloat for long.

The steamer, blazing with a bright torch, continued to move forward. It remained afloat for almost another hour, and only after that the skeleton of the hull, which had already burned out below the waterline, broke into pieces and sank. A significant reason for the large number of casualties was the fact that the coastal fort of Pickering opened fire on boats from nearby piers that were trying to save the drowning people. The fort feared that everything that was happening was a disguised sabotage by the southerners, because the war was not officially over yet. While there were arguments with rescue boats that wanted to moor at the fort, many of the Sultana's passengers drowned.

Fire on the Sultana as imagined by contemporary artists

The disaster resulted in the death of 1,653 people. About 70 more victims died from their injuries within a few days. Only 741 people managed to escape. The bodies of the victims continued to be found on the banks of the river for two months after the incident. The Sultana accident is considered the largest in terms of the number of casualties on civilian ships in the 19th century and is still the largest in terms of the number of casualties in river transport. The explosion also remains the worst water disaster in all of North America.

An investigation into the tragedy began almost immediately. At first, the blame was placed on the ship's crew and captain, but they all died in fire or water. A higher court then indicted the officers who allowed a huge number of prisoners released from captivity to be loaded onto one ship, ignoring safety rules. However, the verdict was overturned by the Judge Advocate General of the Army. In fact, no one was punished for what happened. The commission's findings showed that the explosion was most likely a combination of several factors - contamination of the steam engine mechanisms with sea water, handicraft repairs to the boiler and inadequate quality of coal. Despite the huge number of victims, the Sultana disaster went almost unnoticed in the American media. First, President Lincoln had recently been assassinated, and the country was still in mourning. And secondly, a few days later the tragedy was overshadowed by the news of the end of the Civil War.

Memorial plaque in memory of those killed on the Sultana. Mansfield, Ohio today

Despite the conclusions of the commission, there was a place for conspiracy theories in this story. The fact is that many years later, a certain Robert Louden, a man who was a spy for the southern states in the Civil War, admitted before his death that he planted a so-called “coal bomb” in the coal on the Sultana. It was an explosive device disguised as a piece of coal. However, after so many years, it is no longer possible to verify its truth.

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