“I stood bewildered for a moment, and then saw the river perfectly alive with human beings struggling in the water, and the cry from all quarters was ‘put out the fire!’ which was getting a good headway by this time. But there was such a mass of confusion and such a complete wreck of the boat that nobody, apparently, could get out of the position they were in.”
This was the recollection of one N. Wintringer, the Chief Engineer of the SS. Sultana. On today’s date, April 27 in 1865, the SS Sultana was destroyed in an explosion. An estimated 1,600 of the 2,400 passengers were killed – most of whom were returning to their homes after surviving the horrors of captivity in Confederate Prisoner of War Camps – when three of the ship’s four boilers exploded and the Sultana sank near Memphis in the greatest maritime disaster in United States history.
“The Sultana” Built in 1863
The wooden steamship was built by the John Lithoberry Shipyard on Front Street in Cincinnati in 1863. Meant for the cotton trade and weighing 1,719 tons, the steamer usually had a crew of 85. “Sultana” ran a regular route between St. Louis and New Orleans for two years, and was many times commissioned by the War Department to carry troops.
Overcrowding on board “the Sultana”
The Sultana departed from New Orleans on April 21 with 100 passengers. When she stopped at Vicksburg, Mississippi, in order to repair a boiler which was leaking, R. G. Taylor, the boilermaker on the ship, told Captain J. Cass Mason that two sheets on the boiler would have to be replaced. Mason, who was part owner of the ship, ordered Taylor to go ahead and patch the plates until the ship reached St. Louis. The federal government had offered $5 for each enlisted man and $10 for each officer which Sultana brought North, and such a contract promised huge dividends. So instead of having the bad boiler replaced, a small patch repair was made to reinforce a leaking area with a section of bulged boiler plate being removed, and a patch of less thickness than the parent plate being riveted in its place. This repair took only one day instead of three, and during that repair time in port, enough men managed to push their way on board that the Sultana was packed to the rafters with men, many of them recently released from captivity in Southern Prisoner of War camps. Over two thousand men crowded aboard. Chester D. Berry, a volunteer with the 20’th Michigan Infantry
had been captured at the Battle of Cold Harbor, and had endured captivity in the notorious Confederate Prison Camp at Andersonville, Georgia. He recalled how anxious his comrades were to get home:
“A happier lot of men I think I never saw then than those poor fellows were. The most of them had been a long time in prison, some even for about two years, and the prospect of soon reaching home made them content to endure any amount of crowding. I know that on the lower deck we were just about as thick as we could possibly lie all over the deck and I understood that the other decks were the same.”
Most of these men were sound asleep at about 2:00 a.m., with Sultana about 7 to 9 miles north of Memphis, when a tremendous rupture occurred on one or more of the patched-up boilers, and the sound tore into what had been a quiet and restful night. Berry described the moment of the boiler’s explosion:
“… when the terrific explosion took place… I was awakened from a sound sleep by a stick of cord wood striking me on my head and fracturing my skull… I lay low for a moment when the hot water soaking through my blanket made me think I had better move.”
This vast explosion threw many of these men into the water, while destroying a large portion of the ship. Hot coals that had been spewed out of the ship’s engines soon set fire to whatever remained of the ship’s superstructure. Berry then described what he saw of this inferno:
“I sprang to the bow of the boat, and turning I looked back upon one of the most terrible scenes I ever beheld. The upper decks of the boat were a complete wreck, and the dry casings of the cabins falling in upon the hot bed of coal was burning like tinder. A few pailsful of water would have put the fire out, but alas, it was ten feet to the water and there was no ropes to draw with, consequently the flames swept fiercely up and back through the light wood of the upper decks.”
The Official Inquiry Findings
The Mississippi was filled with the waters from the spring run-off, and was nearly freezing cold, so many of those who were thrown into the water died of hypothermia. And many more simply couldn’t swim. Berry referred to the water as being “…black with human beings many of whom were sinking and taking others with them.” The Sultana’s officers, among them Captain Mason were killed. An official inquiry found that as the Sultana cruised north through the twists and turns of the river her overcrowding caused her to list severely from one side to the other. Her four boilers were mounted side by side, so this careening of water from one side to the other created sudden surges in pressure which likely caused the explosion of the poorly-repaired boilers.
That was the official finding, but all that Berry would recall was the horror of the dead and dying:
The horrors of that night will never be effaced from my memory — such swearing, praying, shouting and crying I had never heard; and much of it from the same throat — imprecations followed by petitions to the Almighty, denunciations by bitter weeping.”
“Loss of the Sultana and Reminiscences of Survivors” by Mr. Chester D. Berry and Dr. David Madden