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.
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.