The Wreck of the Sultana

The Mississippi River steamboat/paddlewheeler, SS Sultana, was destroyed in an explosion on April 27, 1865.

This was the greatest maritime disaster in United States history. An estimated 1,800 of the 2,400 passengers were killed when three of the ship’s four boilers exploded almost at once and the Sultana sank into the Mississippi near Memphis.

Despite the massive loss of life, this disaster did not receive much press coverage because it occurred immediately after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln and during the closing weeks of the Civil War.

The wooden steamship was constructed in 1863 by the John Lithoberry Shipyard on Front Street in Cincinnati, and intended for the lower Mississippi cotton trade. Weighing 1,719 tons, the steamer normally carried a crew of 85. For two years, the Sultana ran a regular route between St. Louis and New Orleans. The steamship was frequently commissioned by the War Department to carry troops.

The ship was meant to carry about 500 passengers but was regularly overloaded when transporting troops.

This run included mostly Union soldiers traveling home after being released from prisons in the Confederacy.

Sultana Memorial at the Mount Olive Baptist Church Cemetery in Knoxville, Tennessee

Sultana Memorial at the Mount Olive Baptist Church Cemetery in Knoxville, Tennessee

The official cause of the Sultana disaster was determined to be mismanagement of water levels in the boiler, exacerbated by “careening”. The Sultana was severely overcrowded and top heavy. As the steamship made its way north following the twists and turns of the river, the Sultana listed severely to one side then the other.

The Sultana’s four boilers were interconnected and mounted side-by-side, so that if the ship tipped sideways, water would tend to run out of the highest boiler. With the fires still going against the empty boiler, this created hot spots. When the ship tipped the other way, water rushing back into the empty boiler would hit the hot spots and flash instantly to steam, creating a sudden surge in pressure.

This effect of careening could have been minimized by maintaining high water levels in the boilers. The official inquiry found that Sultana ‘s boilers exploded due to the combined effects of careening, low water level, and a faulty repair to a leaky boiler made a few days earlier.

Monuments and historical markers to the Sultana and its victims have been erected at Memphis, Tennessee; Muncie, Indiana; Marion, Arkansas; Vicksburg, Mississippi; Cincinnati, Ohio; Knoxville, Tennessee; Hillsdale, Michigan; and Mansfield, Ohio.

More About the Sultana Disaster
Criminal Overloading of the Boat

ST. LOUIS, May 1. Hon. John Covode,of the War Committee, furnishes the following information relative to the Sultana disaster:

No troops of States east of Ohio were lost. All the Eastern troops will be sent to Annapolis.

He says the boat was overloaded, her registered capacity being 376 passengers. Other good boats were at Vickburgh at the same time, but the authorities would not let them have the prisoners. He thinks there is criminality in the matter. About 2,000 paroled prisoners were at Vicksburg when the Sultana left. 3,000 were left at Andersonville in consequence of the railroad being destroyed between Andersonville and Jackson. They go to Annapolis by way of the sea.

The Sultana’s agent writes that near 1,700 persons were lost by the disaster. No report states the loss at less than 1,490 or 1,500.

Survivor Snapshot

Joseph Stevens of Buffalo, NY

Among the many prominent live stock commission brokers, none is more conspicuous than Joseph Stevens. He was born in Yorkshire, Eng., in 1840, coming to this country in 1848 and settling with his parents in Hillsdale, Mich. After completing his elementary education he became engaged in the buying and shipping of live stock.

June 20, 1861, when the call to arms was heard, he enlisted in Company E, Capt. W. Lombard’s company, at Hillsdale, Michigan, and was mustered into the 4th Michigan Infantry, commanded by Col. D.A. Woodbury, at Adrian, Mich.

In the Seven Days fight in front of Richmond he was captured and sent to Libby prison, was soon exchanged on account of sickness and sent to a Philadelphia hospital, remaining there until he received his discharge.

He was home but one week when he re-enlisted and was appointed drill master in Company B, 1st Michigan Sharpshooters, under the command of Col. C.W. Deland.

On June 17, 1864, he was captured in front of Petersburg and sent to Andersonville prison.

In the middle of April, 1865, he, with nearly 2,000 others, was exchanged and put aboard the ill-fated steamer Sultana and started for home; seven miles above Memphis, Tenn., she blew up, killing 1,500.

This was one of the most terrible steamboat disasters that history has ever recorded. Mr. Stevens was picked up off of a bale of hay unconscious and nearly dead by a gun boat and taken to Memphis Hospital, where he stayed for several days until he was able to be taken home.

In 1876 he removed to Buffalo and formed a copartnership with John McDonough, under the style of McDonough & Stevens, live stock commission brokers, which firm continued for two years, it then becoming McDonough, Stevens & Dunning.

Upon the death of Mr. McDonough a few years later it was changed to Dunning & Stevens, which firm still continues.

On May 1, 1866, he married Julia Hawkins of Sturgis, Mich., formerly of Lockport, N.Y.

Source: Our County And Its People, A Descriptive Work On Erie County. Truman C. White. The Boston History Company, Publishers, 1898, pp. 3-550.

Cory Branan of Memphis, TN, is known to perform an original song titled “The Wreck of the Sultana”.


All images included in blog posts are from either Accessible Archives collections or out of copyright public sources unless otherwise noted. Common sources include the Library of Congress, The Flickr Commons, Wikimedia Commons, and other public archives.

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