- 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
For fire followed the explosion. The blast scattered hot coals from the furnaces all over the midships section of the steamer, and in moments the disabled vessel was on fire. The upper works were all collapsed, there was a huge, gaping hole in the middle of the hurricane deck, and the flames were taking hold everywhere. To stay aboard could be worse than to be in the river, even if a man was too weak to swim. So men who had not been knocked into the water went there of their own accord, willing to face anything rather than the spreading flames. One man who clung to the wrecked upper deck wrote afterward: “On looking down and out into the river I could see men jumping from all parts of the boat into the water, until it seemed black with men, their heads bobbing up like corks, and then disappearing beneath the turbulent waters, never to appear again.”
The Sultana of course was totally out of control by now, and was drifting helplessly downstream. The deck supporting the main rank of passenger cabins, where the officers were housed, collapsed at one end, forming a horrible steep ramp down which, into the hottest of the fire, slid screaming men and a tangle of wreckage. The huge twin smokestacks, hallmark of every Mississippi packet boat, tottered uncertainly and then came crashing down, pinning men under them and holding them for the flames. The superstructure was falling in, and the whole midships section was nothing better than a floating bed of coals. Survivors clung desperately to the bow and stern sections, which the fire had not yet reached; and among them, panic-born, there started the cry: “The boat’s sinking!” Many voices took up the cry, as if it were a death chant, and men who were as yet unhurt began to throw themselves into the water, thrashing about frantically for some bit of wreckage that might help them stay afloat.
Somewhere aboard the Sultana was a ten-foot alligator, in a stout wooden cage—a “man-eater,” according to soldier gossip. One soldier bayoneted the reptile, rolled the wooden crate over the side, jumped in after it, and hung onto it until a passing boat rescued him.
Hundreds of horribly burned and scalded men remained aboard the drifting hulk. Some had the strength and presence of mind to wrench doors or window blinds from their hinges, toss them overboard, and jump in after them. Others simply huddled in the diminishing spaces that the flames had not yet reached and shouted, prayed, or screamed helplessly for aid. Someone had got the steamer’s lifeboats into the water, but these were swamped when the desperate floating men tried to struggle aboard.
So far the flames had not reached the bow, and there most of the survivors were jammed. Then the wind shifted—or perhaps the drifting boat swung around and took it from another direction—and the flames leaped forward.
Most of the men preferred drowning to being burned alive, and leaped into the water. One man remembered: “The men who were afraid to take to the water could be seen clinging to the sides of the bow of the boat until they were singed oil like flies. Shrieks and cries for mercy were all that could be heard; and that awful morning reminded me of the stories of doomsday of my childhood.”
At last the boat struck a small island where there was a little grove of trees, and some of those who were still aboard jumped ashore with ropes and made the hulk fast. Twenty or thirty more had managed to fabricate a makeshift raft from broken timbers, and cut loose just in time. Slowly, the worst of the flames died down. And finally, with the mooring ropes still holding, what was left of the Sultana gave up the hopeless struggle and sank, with a great noise of hissing and a huge pillar of smoke and steam rising toward the sky.
When the cold dawn light came, survivors dotted the river all the way to Memphis, clinging to logs, rafts, spars, barrels, sections of railing and other bits of wood. All the rescue craft in Memphis put out to do what they could, hauling half-dead men out of the cold river. One former Confederate soldier in a small boat is said to have rescued fifteen Union soldiers, single-handed.
Hundreds of men were found on both shores of the Mississippi, clinging to trees or driftwood, many of them badly burned and without clothing.
Altogether, between 500 and 600 men were taken to the Memphis hospitals. Some 200 of these died soon afterward, either from burns or from exposure and general debility. For many days after the disaster, a barge was sent out each morning to pick up dead bodies. Each night it would come back to Memphis with its gruesome cargo.
So the Sultana was gone, and it remained to count the dead and to try to find out just why the disaster had happened.