- Historic Sites
Death On The Dark River
Most terrible steamboat disaster in history, probably, was the loss of the Sultana in 1865. Some 1,700 returning Union veterans died—yet the tragedy got very few headlines.
October 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 6
Here some of the passengers disembarked. The hogsheads of sugar were unloaded, and some of the stronger ex-prisoners helped in the work, to earn a bit of pocket money. A number of the soldiers went ashore to see the sights, and some of these—not knowing how lucky they were—saw so many sights that they did not get back by sailing time. They were stranded in Memphis.
While the Sultana was at Memphis, a leaky boiler gave more trouble. Again the repair gang was called in and the leak was repaired.
It was close to midnight when the packet let go her mooring lines and crossed the river to take on coal. After this was loaded the Sultana went on up the river, bound for Cairo. Most of the servicemen aboard were to disembark there.
The current was strong and the Sultana was overloaded—fearfully overloaded, with six times as many passengers as she had been designed to carry. The big paddle wheels thrashed the water, straining against the powerful current. One of the four boilers began to act up again, and makeshift repairs were made. Captain Mason was troubled. One of the ship’s officers later recalled that as they left Memphis he remarked: “I’d give all the interest I have in this steamer if we were safely landed at Cairo!”
The soldiers, one supposes, were dozing. Two or three more days and they would be home again. Then they could sleep and eat and rest, and the terrible prison camp experiences could begin to fade in their memories. The war was over; just a few more hours on this crowded steamboat, and they would be home.
Midnight passed, and the Sultana kept on going. By two in the morning she was just a few miles north of Memphis. She was making progress, but progress was slow; the current was powerful, the boilers were tired, the load was much greater than usual. The Sultana swung round a bend and began to labor her way past a cluster of islands known as “the Hen and Chickens.”
Then it happened. The leaky boilers gave up—gave up, quit holding the heavy pressure of steam, and suddenly exploded with a tremendous crash that was heard all the way back to Memphis.
The explosion sent an orange-colored flame boiling up into the black sky; a sudden, stabbing pillar of fire that lit up the black swirling river and was visible for miles. Back at Memphis the watch on U.S.S. Grosbeak, a river gunboat, saw the light and heard the noise. The skipper was called, and he had them cast off the mooring lines and the Grosbeak went pounding up the river. Other steamers on the Memphis waterfront did likewise, hurrying against the strong current to give any help they could give.
It was a losing race. The Sultana had been half blown apart by the terrific force of the explosion. Hundreds of sleeping soldiers were blown bodily into the river—snugly asleep one moment, hurtling through the air and into the cold black water the next. With them went great chunks of twisted machinery, a shower of red-hot coals that hissed and spurted as they hit the river, and great fragments of wood, cabin furniture, railing, deck beams—half of the steamboat had simply disintegrated. One man was said to have been thrown more than 200 feet. By some freak, he was not seriously hurt; landed in the river, floundered a few yards to a floating tree, clung to it, and was picked up by a boat from the Grosbeak, miles downstream. Three other men were blown clear of the ship, a big piece of the afterdeck under them. Deck and men made a square landing 75 feet from the wrecked vessel; dazed and still no more than half awake, the men clung to the wreckage until it had floated down to Memphis, where rescue boats saved them.
Few of the returning prisoners fared that well. The water was icy-cold, many of them could not swim, and there was little wreckage to cling to. Men died by the hundreds, in the water near the wreck. They had been half-starved for months and were in no physical shape to swim even if they had known how.
One man recalled afterward: “When I got about 300 or 400 yards away from the boat, clinging to a heavy plank, the whole heavens seemed to be lighted up by the conflagration. Hundreds of my comrades were fastened down by the timbers of the decks and had to burn, while the water seemed to be one solid mass of human beings struggling with the waves.”