When the boiler exploded aboard the steamer Sultana on April 27, 1865, more than 1,700 people lost their lives. Most of those aboard were recently released Union prisoners from Confederate prisons in Cahaba, Alabama, and Andersonville, Georgia. They were en route from Camp Fiske in Mississippi to Camp Chase, Ohio, but the explosion occurred only a few hours into the journey. In addition to the faulty boiler, the ship was also grossly overburdened with 2,200 passengers on a vessel built to carry 376.
Records relating to the Sultana Disaster, April 1865, are now available on Fold3. They include lists of the former prisoners who survived the disaster, with military service information and brief comments on their injuries. There are also lists of those who perished, yet not of the civilian survivors or those who died.
The enormity of the disaster led quickly to investigations. By January 1866, a court-martial was convened to charge Captain Frederick Speed, the man who volunteered to coordinate the transfer of prisoners, with “neglect of duty to the prejudice of good order and military discipline.” There are 647 documents in the court-martial case with testimonies, witness accounts, and statements by the defense and prosecution. After “nearly six long weary months” the trial came to a close. Capt. Speed was the only person charged in the incident. He was found guilty, yet the charges were later dismissed by Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt.