Death On The Dark River

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No definite count of the casualties was possible, because there did not exist any really complete list of the number of men aboard at the time. Estimates of the number killed ranged from 1,500 to 1,900. Probably a median figure of 1,700 would be about right. In any case, one of the most terrible steamship disasters in history, if not indeed the worst of all, had taken place. Of the few hundred lucky survivors who finally got home, a few formed an association called the Sultana Survivors Society, which held annual meetings for many years.

There were many rumors about the cause of the explosion—including a wholly baseless story that some vengeful ex-Confederate had put explosives in the coal. A high-ranking officer of the Army, in a report on the disaster, made this observation:

“It is the common opinion among engineers that an explosion of steam boilers is impossible when they have the proper quantity of water in them, but boilers may burst from an over-pressure of steam when they are full of water, owing to some defective part of the iron, in which there is generally no harm done than giving way of the defective part and the consequent escape of steam. One engineer, who is said to be the most reliable on the river, says that even in such a case the great power of the steam, having once found a yielding place, tears everything before it, producing the effect of an explosion, and his view seems to be reasonable. What is usually understood as the explosion of a boiler is caused by the sudden development of an intense steam by the water coming in contact with red-hot iron, which produces an effect like the firing of gunpowder in a mine, and the destruction of the boilers and the boat that carries them is the consequence.”

All of which tells little enough. What is known is that the Sultana, fearfully overloaded, was struggling against an abnormally strong current with defective boilers. Something finally collapsed under the strain, the boilers exploded, the wrecked ship then took fire, and most of the men aboard were killed.

Queerly enough, this overwhelming catastrophe got only a moderate amount of newspaper attention at the time. The nation’s mind was fixed on the closing scenes of the Civil War. Lee had surrendered, General Joseph E. Johnston was surrendering on the day before the disaster, the country had a new President and was beginning to worry about the problem of rebuilding the sadly shattered Union, the Army naturally was not anxious to publicize the accident—and, anyway, the country’s most influential papers were published in the East, and the Sultana’s victims were all from the Middle West, far away and across the mountains. There was an official inquiry, productive of a mass of documents to which nobody in particular paid very much attention . . . and there the affair ended, one of the worst marine disasters in history but one which has a hard time finding its way into the history books.

And at this distance, one can hardly help wondering what the handful of shore-going soldiers who missed their boat at Memphis thought about it afterward.