A Little Known Disaster

Thursday, June 27, 2013

One is never too old to learn.

I'm proof of that.

Recently while talking with a new friend, I was asked if I'd ever heard of a steamboat disaster that surpassed the disaster of the Titanic.

It happened near Memphis, Tenn. during the Civil War, he said.

I said no, I had never heard or read of any such disaster, but that I would certainly search it out online.

What I learned when I researched, was that SS Sultana was a Mississippi River steamboat that exploded on April 27, 1865 in the greatest maritime disaster in United States history.(The Civil War ended on April 9, 1865 after four years of bloodshed.)

An estimated 1,600 of Sultana's 2,400 passengers died when three of the ship's four boilers exploded and Sultana sank near Memphis.

This disaster was overshadowed in the press by other recent events. John Wilkes Booth, assassin who shot and killed President Abraham Lincoln, was killed the day before the steamboat tragedy.

The news focused on the assassination and the hunt for the president's killer.

The steamship was constructed in 1863 and intended for the lower Mississippi cotton trade.

The steamer normally carried a crew of 85. For two years, Sultana ran a regular route between St. Louis and New Orleans, frequently commissioned to carry troops. It also carried mail.

Under the command of Captain J.C. Mason of St. Louis, the ship left New Orleans on April 21, 1865 with 75 to 100 passengers, deck passengers, and livestock bound for market in St. Louis.

In Vicksburg, Miss., the steamship stopped for a series of hasty repairs to the boilers and to take on more passengers. But to speed things up, instead of replacing the boilers, a small patch repair was made to reinforce a leaking area. A section of bulged boiler plate was removed, and a patch of lesser thickness was riveted in its place. The repair took about one day, whereas a complete replacement of the boiler would have taken three days. During Sultana's time in port, more than two thousand men muscled their way on board.

Most of those passengers were Union soldiers, chiefly from Ohio, and just released from Confederate prison camps. The US government had contracted with Sultana to transport these former prisoners of war back to their homes.

Unfortunately, the ship had only a legal capacity of 376, and was severely overcrowded.

Passengers were packed into every available berth, and the overflow was so severe that the decks were completely packed.

The cause of the explosion was a leaky and poorly repaired steam boiler. It is also believed allowable steam pressure was exceeded in an attempt to overcome spring river current. The boiler (or boilers) gave way when the steamer was 7 to 9 miles north of Memphis at 2:00 a.m.

The enormous explosion flung some of the passengers into the water, and destroyed a large section of the ship. Hot coals scattered by the explosion soon turned the remaining superstructure into an inferno, the glare visible as far away as Memphis.

The first rescue boat on the scene was the southbound steamer Bostonia II which arrived about an hour after the explosion, and rescued scores of survivors. Passengers who survived the initial explosion had to risk their lives in the icy spring runoff of the Mississippi or burn with the ship. Many died of drowning or hypothermia. Some survivors were plucked from trees along the Arkansas shore. Bodies of victims continued to be found downriver for months, some as far as Vicksburg. Many bodies were never recovered. Sultana's officers, including Captain Mason, were among those who died.

About 500 survivors, many with horrible burns, were transported to hospitals in Memphis. Up to 300 of them died later from burns or exposure. Newspaper accounts indicate that the people of Memphis had sympathy for the victims despite the fact that they had recently been enemies. Monuments and historical markers to Sultana and its victims have been erected at Memphis, Muncie, Ind., Marion, Arkansas, Vicksburg, Mississippi, Cincinnati, Ohio, Knoxville, Tenn. Hillsdale, Mich., and Mansfield, Ohio.

No exact death toll is known. Estimates range from 1,300 to 1,900. The official count by the United States Service was 1,547 It is estimated that there were between 700 and 800 survivors.

By comparison, the Titanic ocean liner sank on April 15, 1912 with 2,228 passengers and crew on board. Of that number, there were 1,523 deaths; It was the worst death toll from a wreck at sea during peacetime and by far the most famous.

Titanic's story has been told countless times in movies, documentaries, plays, reviews, exhibits and books.

Perhaps the Titanic story is well known by the public because, at the time, it was the largest ship in the world. Also, it had been dubbed "unsinkable" and was on its maiden voyage when it struck an iceberg. There was no comparison in opulence.

Perhaps, too, was the fact that a large number of elite passengers were aboard. Among them was John Jacob Aster, one of America's wealthiest men and his young wife Madeleine. Silent film actress Dorothy Gibson, Macy's department store owner Isidor Sraus and his wife Ida, millionairess Margaret "Molly" Brown. Also. there were journalists, authors, Broadway producers, and others who traveled first class. Also traveling first class were White Star Line's managing director J. Bruce Ismay and the ship's builder Thomas Andrew.

The Titanic was at the time one of the worst maritime disasters in terms of loss of life. However, Titanic's death toll was exceeded by the explosion and sinking of the steamboat Sultana on the Mississippi River in 1865.

Next time I walk with my friend I'll be more knowledgeable.