Wednesday, April 26, 2006
The Sultana Sinking, April 27, 1865
Today in 1865, the paddlewheeler Sultana exploded and sank on the Mississippi River north of Memphis, Tennessee. To this day, it remains the worst maritime disaster in United States history.
Sultana was carrying precious cargo on the morning of the 27th: Union soldiers who had been held as prisoners of war in the South. The war had ended on April 9th of that year, so the federal government contracted the Sultana to bring these men home. Many of them had been held at the infamous camps at Andersonville and Cahawba and were in poor health. The steamboat was rated to carry 376 passengers, but there were over 2,400 people aboard for this voyage. Every compartment was full and even the open spaces were packed with men lying on the wooden decks.
Soon after the ship passed Memphis, Tennessee, a gigantic explosion rocked the night. One of the Sultana’s boilers had given way, destroying a large section of the ship and spraying hot coals onto the remaining wooden superstructure and hull, which immediately caught fire.
Those not killed by the explosion or trapped inside the burning ship jumped into the water in an attempt to reach the shore. The Mississippi River was near flood stage and the passengers and crew found themselves rushed downstream by the incredibly fast current. Those who were not excellent swimmers drowned; many of those who did not drown died of hypothermia in the cold water.
About 500 survivors made it shore and were taken to hospitals in Memphis. Despite heroic efforts on the part of the Tennesseans, more than 200 people who made it to the hospital later died of their injuries. Although exact figures have been lost to time, it is estimated that 1,700 people were killed as result of the explosion, fire and raging river.
Investigations into the cause of the explosion concluded that low water levels in the ship’s four boilers were to blame. Since the ship was severely overweight on this trip, she tended to list more when making turns. Water from one boiler would spill into another and then back; when the water returned to the near-empty boiler, it would flash to steam and cause a spike in pressure. Eventually, one of the boilers could no longer contain the force of the steam and exploded.
Another, much more controversial theory was put forth in 1888 for the cause of the explosion. It was claimed that Robert Louden, on his deathbed, had admitted to placing a coal torpedo in the bunker onboard the steamboat. A coal torpedo was essentially an explosive device camouflaged to look like an ordinary piece of coal. When exposed to fire, it would heat up and explode, sometimes causing boilers to rupture. Louden was a former Confederate agent embittered by the south’s recent defeat in the Civil War. Also, the man who invented the coal torpedo, Thomas Courtenay, had lived in St. Louis during the time Louden was there. However, despite the confession and the potential for collusion between Louden and Courtenay, no physical evidence was ever found to support this theory.
Today, there are monuments to the men who died on the Sultana located in six states: Arkansas, Indiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Ohio and Tennessee. The disaster, overshadowed at the time by the end of the war and President Lincoln’s assassination, was truly a loss to the entire nation.