During times of war, there will normally be casualties on at least one side or on both. When this occurs, there is some solace in that the individual died in battle defending his or her own beliefs. Yet, when a soldier dies away from the battlefield or in some freakish accident, many would have difficulties coming to terms of an individual passing away in such a manner. Several centuries ago when the Civil War was closely reaching its’ end, a tragic accident occurred at sea claiming the lives of hundreds of people. This incident happened onboard the steamboat Sultana as it suddenly exploded near Memphis on the Mississippi River; the result was the loss of life of 1,700 passengers that included many Union soldiers that had been discharged.
In 1863, the Sultana left port from Cincinnati that was listed as being 260 feet long while having an authorized capacity of 376 crew and passengers. Soon, it would be hired to transport along the lower Mississippi River supplies and troops. The Sultana departed from New Orleans with 100 passengers on April 25th, 1865 and would stop to make repairs on a leaky boiler at Vicksburg, Mississippi. R.G. Taylor was responsible for the vessel’s boilermaker and advised Captain J. Cass Mason that the boiler had two sheets that needed to be replaced; however, Mason instructed Taylor to basically put patches on the plates until they reached the destination of St. Louis.
The steamboat’s partial owner was Mason and along with other owners of the vessel, they excited to make it to Vicksburg in order to pick up Union prisoners that had been discharged. The federal government offered to pay for each officer as well as each enlisted man that were dropped off to the North; each enlisted individual was worth $5 while each officer was worth $10. A contract such as this had the potential of paying large dividends while Mason had persuaded military authorities that were local to retrieve the whole contingent regardless of two other steamboats being present at Vicksburg.
The Sultana departed from Vicksburg carrying 200 civilians and 2,100 officers; this had exceeded over six times its’ authorized capacity. The ship docked at Memphis on the evening of April 26th and then sailed across the river in Arkansas to get coal. As it was traveling up the river in the area above Memphis, a tremendous explosion ripped through the steamboat. While hundreds had perished from the boilers steam and metal, hundreds more were launched from the vessel into the chilly water of the river. Unfortunately, the Sultana had a few life preservers and only a single lifeboat, not to mention that the Mississippi had already been in a stage of flood; only 600 people had survived the blast.
Later, a board of inquiry would find that the reason for the explosion was due to the boiler had failed to contain a sufficient amount of water; the major amount of overcrowding had not been listed as an attributing factor. Sadly, the biggest maritime disaster in the history of the United States at present is the accident on the Sultana.