- The Washington Times - Friday, April 27, 2007

Union soldiers held in the Andersonville, Ga., and Cahaba, Miss., prison camps struggled to stay alive, surrounded by disease and hunger. On April 24, 1865, many of the survivors were among the estimated 2,300 Union soldiers who boarded the steamboat Sultana at Vicksburg, Miss., for the trip home, along with 200 civilians and crew.

The steamboat had a legal limit of just 376 passengers and crew.

The Sultana, a side-wheel steamboat, was built in 1863 at a cost of $60,000. The 260-foot-long and 39-foot-wide vessel weighed 660 tons and sailed under the command of Capt. J. Cass Mason of St. Louis.

The Sultana was docked at Vicksburg when a crew member detected a steam leak in the boilers. The steamboat remained docked in Vicksburg for 33 hours as repairs to the boiler were made. Sultana’s first engineer, Nathan Waitringer, later testified that he watched the boiler repair, and it appeared properly completed.

Army Capts. Frederick Speed and George A. Williams were responsible for the proper boarding of soldiers. Speed advised Maj. Gen. Napoleon J.T. Dana that the number would not exceed 1,400 men. Speed and Williams both assured Dana that the load was not too large for the boat and that the men appeared comfortable and not overcrowded.

The officers usually prepared the muster rolls in advance of boarding, but on this voyage, they completed the rolls after the steamer left Vicksburg. As the Sultana headed north, the exact number of passengers was not known.

Two other steamboats had been docked near the Sultana, and both could have transported some of the men home. According to testimony, the men were jammed onto the Sultana’s three decks, with scant room to sleep. Every part of the boat, from the roof of the officers quarters to the main deck, was fully occupied. It became almost impossible to move about at night, and during the day, it was even more difficult.

Cooks prepared food with hot water taken from the boilers or at a small stove on the the main deck, but it was difficult to deliver the food to the men. The weight on the upper deck made it necessary to set up stanchions in many places, and even then, the deck sagged. The men’s anxiety to return home allowed them to tolerate almost any inconvenience.

At 2 a.m. on April 27, 1865, just seven miles upstream from Memphis, three of the four boilers exploded, turning the voyage into a night of terror and death.

Hot metal from the boilers and hot coals from the furnaces scattered on the decks, setting the ship afire. The explosion caused the smokestacks and decks to collapse. The weak and exhausted ex-prisoners of war jumped overboard, risking their lives in the Mississippi to avoid the raging fire.

Drowning men covered the river as nearby boats tried to pick up the survivors. Many of the men floated downstream, in the direction of Memphis, clinging to anything they could find — logs, parts of the steamer, furniture and any other floating object. As daylight approached, the cries of drowning men ended. All who had not been rescued had succumbed to the water or died trapped in the sunken steamer.

Many of the men suffered serious injury from scalding and bruising, and in their wet clothing, they suffered from exposure. Pvt. William C. Barnes of the 23rd Ohio Infantry was one of the lucky ones. He was taken to Washington Hospital in Memphis, badly bruised but alive. Rescuers started large fires on shore and administered stimulants as nearby hospitals sent ambulances.

Memphis hospitals prepared to receive many of the wounded for treatment of burns and exposure. Some previous hospital patients willingly gave up their beds. Many of those who made it to the hospital died later from injuries suffered in the explosion. Estimates put the dead at more than 1,700.

Newspapers mentioned the disaster in small articles on back pages, as it was overshadowed by the assassination of President Lincoln, the capture of John Wilkes Booth and the surrender of Confederate Gen. Joseph Johnston’s army in North Carolina. On April 29, 1865, the New York Times carried a brief note on the disaster under General News: “A private dispatch from St. Louis reports the explosion and sinking of the steamer Sultana on the Mississippi — place and date not given — and adds that a great many soldiers lost their lives.”

Several Northern steamships had been destroyed by sabotage during the war, and after the disaster, many Northern newspapers tried to blame Southerners for the Sultana’s destruction, but there was no indication of that.

Private contractors often operated the steamboats that carried troops home, not military vessels. The question arose whether greed played a role in the overcrowding. Because the Federal government paid $5 for a soldier and $10 for each officer aboard, it was lucrative for a ship’s captain to pack as many men as possible onboard. It was not unheard of for ship captains to pay kickbacks to Army officers who sent troops to their ships.

Dana, commanding the Department of Mississippi, and Maj. Gen. Cadwallader C. Washburn, commanding the District of West Tennessee, conducted investigations into the Sultana disaster. Mason, the steamboat’s captain, died in the disaster.

One possible cause of the disaster was insufficient water in the boilers. However, the second engineer, a Mr. Clemmans, who was on watch at the time of the boiler explosion and fatally scalded, before he died told first engineer Waitringer that the boilers were all right and full of water.

If the Sultana sat low in the water, the ship’s pumps may have sucked up mud and sent it, instead of water, into the boilers, causing the pressure to reach a danger level, resulting in an explosion. We may never know if the repair on the boilers was a factor in the disaster. Inquiries into the accident never fixed responsibility for overloading the Sultana.

Monuments and historical markers to the Sultana and its victims have been erected at Memphis; Muncie, Ind.; Marion, Ark.; Vicksburg, Miss.; Cincinnati; Knoxville, Tenn.; Hillsdale, Mich.; and Mansfield, Ohio.

Ronald J. Musto is a writer in Pittston, Pa.

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