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150th Anniversary (1865–2015) This Month in the Civil War: Sultana Disaster

Civil War Collection 150th Anniversary

In the early morning of April 27, 1865, boilers on the steamboat SS Sultana exploded, killing more than a thousand recently released POWs in what is often called the worst maritime disaster in U.S. history.

Toward the end of the Civil War, huge numbers of paroled military prisoners needed to be sent home, which was often done via steamboats with government contracts. Imprisoned Union soldiers at Cahaba (Alabama) and Andersonville (Georgia) prisons were sent to Camp Fisk, near Vicksburg, Mississippi, to be released. Because steamboat captains were paid per head, more than 2,000 of these soldiers were crammed aboard the Sultana, which had the legal capacity to carry only 376. Between the private passengers (including women and children), the soldiers, and crew, some estimates place the number aboard the boat as high as 2,600. There were so many people that the decks of the multi-level steamboat had to be reinforced to keep them from collapsing under the weight.

Sultana Inspector's Certificate
After leaving Vicksburg, the now overcrowded and top-heavy Sultana made its way up the Mississippi River toward Cairo, Illinois, picking up and letting off a few private passengers along the way. Shortly after leaving Memphis, however, around 2 a.m. on the 27th, the boat’s boilers exploded (though some later suggested it was sabotage), releasing scalding steam and setting the boat on fire. Most of the people jumped into the water, but since many of the POWs were in a weakened condition, they quickly drowned.

About an hour and a half later, the first survivors drifted downriver to Memphis, where their cries summoned help. Rescue parties were sent out, but by the time they were called off that afternoon, only about 700 had been saved, 200 to 300 of which died soon after from injuries and exposure. Estimates vary, but one commonly accepted death toll for the disaster is 1,700.

No one was ever really held responsible for the Sultana‘s fate. Captain Frederick Speed, assistant adjutant general for the region, was found guilty at a court-martial for his role in overcrowding the boat, but the verdict was later reversed.

To learn more about the Sultana Disaster, browse Fold3’s Sultana Disaster collection to see original documents and records.

18 Comments

  1. Hello everyone, it’s my first visit at this website,
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  2. The Sultana disaster was not caused by sabatoge – it was caused by a bad boiler design. There were three boilers connected together by water lines. When the boat tilted or tipped, water could run from one boiler to another. The overloading of the boat probably made it more susceptable to this problem. The water drained from one of the boilers to the others. Dry boilers have caused numerous locomotive exprosions, and it caused the Sultana explosion as well.

    • Thank you Joseph, that was very interesting and makes sense.

    • By any chance, do you know who (company name) built the boilers for the Sultana? My mother-in-law’s family was Rohan Mfg. Co of St. Louis. They used to build boilers for
      some of the steamboats.

    • Wow nice to know you were there. Dam man you must be the oldest person on the planet

  3. Was William Elton John Lightfoot on board,, Would like to know more about HIM,, He is my GGGFather.. his son is Green Jackson Lightfoot SR. What is his wife name. I think he was in the 4th Alabama “LOVE” Calvary

  4. My 1st cousin (4 times removed) survived the Sultana disaster

    Some information about my cousin:
    Abraham Whissmore enlisted as a private in Co. B, 102nd OVI, on 15 August 1862 at the age of 20.

    On 24 September 1864, while the regiment was in garrison at Decatur, AL, Pvt. Whissmore was assigned to a detachment that was given the mission of relieving Ft. Henderson at nearby Athens, AL, which was under siege by rebel cavalry under the command of CSA Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest. Upon arriving, the detachment began fighting to gain the fort, and was within sight of it, when the fort was unexpectedly surrendered. Gen. Forrest then turned his troopers on Abraham’s detachment, forcing most of the men in it to surrender. Pvt. Whissmore was captured.
    Seven months later, on April 22 1865, Pvt. Whissmore was exchanged along with many of his fellow soldiers. The released prisoners were being transported back to their home states on the Sultana when the explosion occurred on 27 April 1865. Abraham survived the explosion, listed as wounded in the Vicksburg Hospital on April 29, 1865. After his recovery he was mustered out on 11 May 1865.

    Note to add………….
    In 1898, at the age of 56, Abraham was arrested in Mansfield, Ohio on the charge of insanity. Judge Brinkerhoff ruled Abraham to be sane. Abraham was discharged from custody the next day.
    One doesn’t know what Abraham’s life was like after surviving such a disaster as the Sultana. However, it must have played a toll on his ability to live on in any normal capacity. Abraham never married and seemed to be somewhat of a recluse after the time of his release from the army.
    Abraham died at the age of 82 on Sept 14, 1924. He was buried in the ‘Old Fellows Cemetery’ in Lucas, Richland County, Ohio. A raised gravestone marks his grave with the inscription; ‘Uncle; Abraham Whissmore, Co. B. 102 O.V.I., 1842-1924.’ It is assumed that his sister’s family (Rachel Notestine) had him buried. He was listed as living with her family when he was in his 40’s and 50’s.

    • He is not buried in “the old fellows cemetery”. It is Odd Fellows Cemetery. The Independent Order of Odd Fellows is a fraternal organization dedicated to improving human lives. Most lodges maintained a cemetery because one vow was ” to bury the dead “. Do a google search to find out about this organization.

    • He should have received a military pension and there could be some interesting information on him in those recored. Check it out and hope you find a lot. I have found some really interesting ones this way.

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  7. I have two great-great uncles, Silas and William Wade, who were Union soldiers from the 3rd Regiment, Tennessee Calvary unit (Union) who had just been released from a Confederate prisoner of war camp. They both survived the disaster though one was injured and had to be treated at the hospital in Memphis for a month.

  8. Thanks to all of you for your input/educational comments

  9. Does anyone have any information of Randolph ransom or ransler ransom of flushing Michigan . I am a decendant of both of them and I understand that Randolph was a captain, he was the first resident from genesee county Michigan killed in the war and the GAR Post was named in his honor. Thank you for any help you might give me.

    Robert m. Ransom
    Flushing, mi

  10. Ulysses S. Grant, 18th President of the United States is my 7th cousin four times removed. I wonder if there was any “Palmer’s” on board????

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  13. 150 years ago today my father’s great-gradfather died in the Sultana ship disaster. He had been at the Cahaba Prison camp for 7 months prior to this date. His twin brother had never been captured and thus survived. The Ohio 102nd maintained the worst loss of life. The war was over, Lincoln was dead, who cared about Union soldiers going home? This is the worst marine disaster in the United States and very people know the story, even history teachers. The wooden boat was made for 376 people but reports were that it held more than 1800 and it is often believed to have been 2200. This due to the lack counting a 3rd train car full of former prisoners. There were other boats in Vicksburg to take on soldiers but rumors of smallpox on the other boats kept the Sultana full. The captain was paid $5 a soldier and $10 an officer. Many, many men died but who was there to identify their remains? families were a long way off and many fellow soldiers died. My ancestor was listed as drowned but his widow lists his death in mid May. I believe that was when she received official word. The last known photo was near Vicksburg. The soldiers knew their photo was taking place. So many crowded onto that side you can see the boat listing. A friend Jack Lundquist along with his wife Carol (in Edina Minnesota) worked on digital records for all the Andersonville and Cahaba prisoners. Jack is no longer with us but we owe gratitude to their hard work. Carol’s anscestor was aboard but survived.

    If you would like to read more, I recommend, Gene Salecker’s 1996 book: Disaster on the Mississippi: The Sultana Explosion, April 27, 1865May 1996
    or Rev. Chester D. Berry book (published in 1892) Loss Of The Sultana And Reminiscences Of Survivors.: History Of A Disaster Where Over One Thousand Five Hundred Human Beings Were Lost, Most Of Them … Months In Cahaba And Andersonville Prisons.and finally Jerry Potters The Sultana Tragedy: America’s Greatest Maritime Disaster.

    Remember the Sultana!