This day in history, April 27, 1865, the worst maritime disaster in American history occurred when the steamboat Sultana, carrying 2,100 passengers, exploded and sank in the Mississippi River. The exact death toll is not definitive, but accounts say that it ranges from around 1,200 to 1,700. The majority of the people on board were Union soldiers returning home after the Civil War.
The disaster was overshadowed in the press by other events, in particular, the killing of President Lincoln’s assassin John Wilkes Booth the previous day. The final surrender by the remaining Confederate forces occurred the same day.
Prisoners of war who had been held in hellish conditions in Alabama’s Andersonville and Cahaba prison camps were trying to make their way home to Illinois. The steamboat Sultana was one of their only options to return home.
At 2 a.m. on April 26, the steamboat left Vicksburg, Mississippi after stopping to repair a leaky boiler and pick up the soldiers. Captain J. Cass Mason ordered the mechanic to simply patch the plates until the ship reached St. Louis because he was eager to get the soldiers on his boat. The federal government promised to pay $5 for each enlisted man and $10 for each officer delivered to the North. Such a contract could pay huge dividends, and Mason convinced local military authorities to pick up the entire contingent despite the presence of two other steamboats at Vicksburg.
The steamboat was built to hold 376 passengers, but reports say that there were roughly 2,200-2,300 people on board, more than six times its capacity.
On the evening of April 26, the ship stopped at Memphis before cruising across the river to pick up coal in Arkansas. Near 2:00 A.M. on April 27, 1865, when Sultana was just seven miles north of Memphis, three boilers suddenly exploded.
Hot metal debris and steam ripped through the vessel, killing hundreds. Hundreds more were thrown from the overcrowded boat into the river. Scalding water, collapsing decks and the roaring fire that broke out on board killed many passengers. Some drowned that were thrown off the boat. Rescue boats were dispatched saving hundreds of lives. A board of inquiry later determined the cause to be insufficient water in the boiler.
The Sultana disaster remains one the most deadly maritime accidents in U.S. history.