If you were to mention the word “Titanic” to a random stranger today, and asked them to tell you what that word means to them, there’s a very high chance that you would get one of the following responses from them…
- That Celine Dion song that was overplayed to death…
- “I’m the king of the world”
- “Paint me like one of your French girls”
- There was totally room for Jack on that plank of wood, and Rose basically caused his death…
- Ooooorrrr, big boat that hit an iceberg, and due to arrogance and poor planning, lots of dead folks
The point is, people would know that it had something to do with the deadliest maritime disaster that they are probably aware of. Well, little do they know that there was another water vessel tragedy that was even more deadly than the Titanic.
On April 27th, 1865, the SS Sultana floated north on the Mississippi River loaded with almost 2300 passengers, many of which were Union soldiers that were recently liberated from Confederate prison camps. At approximately 2:00 in the morning, the recklessly overloaded SS Sultana exploded just north of Memphis, Tennessee, becoming the worst maritime disaster in US history.
Side note, since I was curious and looked it up… the deadliest maritime disaster in world history was the wartime sinking of the German military transport ship, the Wilhelm Gustloff during WWII, by a Soviet sub. This disaster had an estimated loss of around 9,400 people. Jeez… Nine thousand four hundred people…
Anyway, I thought that was interesting… and really SAD.
So… on with the story.
The SS Sultana was a paddle steamer, built in Cincinnati, Ohio. It was built originally for Captain Preston Lodwick, at a price of $60,000, and launched on January 3rd, 1863.
The name “Sultana” is derived from the original Arabic word for a wife, mother, or sister of a sultan. Just as a little superstition side-note, this name was not exactly attached to good maritime fortune… three other ships had been made before this one with the same name. All three previous ships were destroyed in accidents. This was not connected to a common builder or designer or anything of the sort. It was merely a coincidence.
The Sultana was one of the largest business steamers ever built for its time. It was 260 feet in length, with a 42 foot beam (that’s the width at its widest point), and had a hold that went 7 feet deep. Its weight was registered at 1,719 tons. The steamer held a regular route between New Orleans and St. Louis as a trade vessel.
The steamer had a carry capacity of 1,000 tons, making it ideal for transporting trade cargo. In addition to the cargo area, it could accommodate 76 cabin passengers and 300 deck passengers. So, that means that its largest capacity for passenger transport, with all safety measures in place, would be 376 passengers. Keep those numbers in mind… At that time, however, the Sultana only had two lifeboats and 76 life preservers, as it was only set up to carry cargo, not passengers.
On the deck of the Sultana were four high-pressure tubular boilers, measuring 18 feet in length and 46 inches in diameter. These boilers were smaller and lighter than the boilers found on conventional steamers, but were made to produce steam more efficiently. The Sultana’s engines powered two water wheels that were each 34 feet in diameter, which were mounted on the sides of the steamer.
The cabin of the steamer featured a long, narrow saloon, lined on each side by a row of staterooms. Each stateroom was luxuriously-furnished, and the saloon was stocked with fine china and glassware.
The vast majority of the passengers aboard the Sultana on its last trip up the Mississippi were Union soldiers that had been captured in battle by the Confederacy, but as the war was coming to a close, they were now being paroled from the Cahaba, AL and Andersonville, GA prison camps. Most of them had seen horrific carnage on the battlefield, but even still, they were ill-prepared for what they were about to experience.
Most of the soldiers that were imprisoned in Cahaba and Andersonville were actually captured in the second half of 1864, meaning that many of them spent an entire year in those prison camps. Quite a few of these soldiers traveled on foot during an unseasonably cold winter between their capture and imprisonment, so they were already malnourished, frostbitten, and otherwise extremely ill from exposure before they ever even reached the prison camps.
There was an official prisoner exchange during the Civil War, which called for even, man-for-man exchanges of all captured soldiers, and these soldiers could return to their units. The soldiers remaining after the even exchanges happened were to be paroled, and they were not to take up arms again until they were formally exchanged. By the end of 1863, the Union leadership all but halted the existing prisoner exchange between the Union and Confederate armies. By 1864, no prisoners were being exchanged at all. Because of the cancellation of this exchange, the populations within the prison camps soared to entirely unmanageable numbers.
For example, Cahaba ended up housing more than 3,000 prisoners by the end of the war, when it was set up to house only about 500. This overcrowding, combined with extremely unsanitary living conditions, tainted water supplies, flooding (which bred mosquitos, fleas, and horrible bouts of dysentery), malnourishment, and even violence, gave most Civil War prison camps very high mortality rates – most of them between 12% and 15%. The horrible conditions within the prison camps during the civil war ended up claiming the lives of more than 26,000 Confederate soldiers and nearly 23,000 Union soldiers in total. A soldier during the Civil War had better odds of survival fighting on the battlefield than he had as a prisoner of war. The creation of this system of prison camps has been called one of the greatest tragedies of the Civil War.
These prisons did not reflect the image that is conjured now, when we think of what a prison looks like. Most of each of these two prisons were completely open to the elements. Cahaba was a repurposed cotton warehouse, with one wooden structure that provided only a basic shelter for a small percentage of the prisoners. Each prisoner at Cahaba had only about 6 square feet of space to himself. Cahaba’s chief surgeon, R.M. Whitfield reported the physical layout of the prison consisted of “a brick wall covered by a leaky roof, with 1600 feet of open space in its center, four open windows, and earth for the floor.”
Conditions were decidedly worse for a while in February of 1865, when torrential rains caused the nearby Alabama river to flood Cahaba’s grounds. This basically took the inhabitable ground space away from nearly everyone in the prison camp. They were left to stand in freezing water (it was February, afterall), while the Confederates in charge of the grounds floated around the prison camp in boats. Eventually, able prisoners were allowed to leave the camp to collect driftwood, so they could stack it into platforms above the surface of the water. Of course, this didn’t work for many of the men imprisoned there, so 700 men were taken to Selma, leaving 2,300 to tough it out in the flooded prison camp.
Andersonville was merely a plot of land and it had no structure of any kind for the prisoners, apart from the cloth tents used for housing. This 27 acre plot was surrounded by a 20 foot high pine stockade, and around the main stockade were additional wooden fences, 16 feet and 12 feet in height. Within these walls lived as many as 33,000 prisoners, which, if we do some approximation, would give each man a little less than 4 square yards of living space. However, it wasn’t even that much, because of uninhabitable areas containing swamp or disposed human waste.
Medical care was slim, when available, and when it was, there was nowhere to provide a sanitary environment for medical treatment and procedures. For these prisoners, the smallest cut, splinter, or sunburn could turn gangrenous and result in amputation or even death. At Andersonville, some of the prisoners shared a theory that the people providing medical treatment were actually executioners in disguise. When they had to inoculate a large group of men in 1864 for smallpox, the prisoners accused them of incolulating them with poison due to the large number of deaths and amputations (from other illnesses such as scurvy, gangrene) that followed the vaccinations. Quote from John Ransom, a prisoner at Andersonville:
“Here we have the very worst kind of water. Nothing can be worse or nastier than the stream drizzling its way through this camp and for air to breathe, it is what arises from this foul place. On all four sides of us are walls and tall trees and there is apparently no wind or breeze to blow away the stench, and we are obliged to breathe and live in it. Dead bodies lay around all day in the boiling sun by the dozen and even hundreds, and we must suffer and live in this atmosphere. It’s too horrible for me to describe in fitting language.”
Crime was also quite prevalent in the prison camps. The Confederacy couldn’t spare trained soldiers to guard the prison camps, so often they ,were guarded by young boys or old men who were either too afraid, too apathetic about their guard duties, or just not capable enough to actually venture into the stockade to maintain order. This left the prisoners mostly alone to defend themselves against crimes ranging from theft, to assault, and even murder.
So, as the Civil War began to come to a close, these Confederate prison camps began to trade their prisoners for soldiers that had been captured by the Union forces. Beginning in late March of 1865, these prisoners were paroled and then travelled by way of train, steamer, or even on foot, and would eventually end up in Vicksburg, Mississippi. This was the designated holding point for all released prisoners from east of the Mississippi River while they waited to be shipped north for full release. This trip, which for some lasted most of a full month, was extremely difficult, especially for those on foot. A soldier from the Indiana Infantry, upon witnessing a large group of paroled prisoners travelling by foot, recounted of the scene,
“Coming like cattle across an open field were scores of men who were nothing but skin and bones. Some hobbling as best they could and others being helped by stronger comrades. Every gaunt face with its staring eyes told the story of suffering and privation they had gone through, and protruding bones showed through their scanty, tattered garments. One might have thought that the grave and the sea had given up their dead.”
Once in Vicksburg, the prisoners were housed at Camp Fisk, also known as Four Mile Camp, and they were to await their transfer by steamer and train to Camp Chase near Columbus, Ohio, where they would receive their official release and discharge from the army. While many of the soldiers were at Camp Fisk, events were unfolding near Appomattox, Virginia that would bring about the end of the Civil War.
So, finally the Sultana itself comes into the story. Captain James Cass Mason, who was piloting the steamer on its fateful trip down the Mississippi River, had essentially sunk everything he owned into his investment in the Sultana. Because of this, Mason was likely driven by more than the usual entrepreneurial desire for profits.
Let’s provide a little background on this J. Cass Mason fellow, since he was such a gem.
In March of 1864, Preston Lodwick – the man for whom the Sultana was built, sold the steamer to three investors for $80,000… so, a $20,000 profit on a steamer that had already been in use for a year. Good job, Preston! So, while Mr. Lodwick was making it rain from the sale of the steamer, J. Cass Mason – now three-eighths owner of the Sultana – was named its captain and master because at only 34 years old, he was already skilled in navigating the Mississippi river.
Mason had also already been owner and operator of a few more steamers… He lost the command of one of his vessels, the Rowena, when it was seized by the US Navy. On board the Rowena, with Mason at the helm, officers found 200 ounces of quinine that was bound for the Confederate-controlled city of Tiptonville, TN, along with 3000 pairs of Rebel uniform pants. The contraband and the steamer were seized and put to use by the Navy.
Mason had heard, in advance of his landing in Vicksburg, that the US military was offering $5 per enlisted man and $10 per officer for the transporting of prisoners at that time. This type of return on investment was desperately needed by Mason, as he was in financial straits. He had decided that he would do whatever he could to ensure that the Sultana would be carrying a large number of prisoners when it left the Vicksburg docks to head north.
When Captain Mason landed in Vicksburg on its normal run downriver to New Orleans, about three days before the trip north, he met with Colonel Ruben B. Hatch to try and secure a guarantee of a full load of prisoners upon his return north. Let’s set the stage a bit for this character, who played a large part in contributing to the disaster on the Sultana. Hatch, who began his military service in 1861, at the age of 41, had been charged with defrauding the government during his time as a quartermaster in Cairo, Illinois. He would purchase large amounts of lumber from Chicago area lumber dealers on behalf of the government at the approved rate, but demand that the dealers fill out the receipts at a higher rate. He would then pay the dealers at the lower rate and distribute the remaining funds among himself and two other men. Unfortunately for him, these lumber dealers had more integrity than he assumed they would and they turned him in.
During this fraudulent operation, he was also keeping a public and a private set of books. This private set of books, after his attempt to discard them into the Ohio River, washed onto the bank and were discovered. He was immediately arrested for his fraudulent dealings against the US government. However, somehow – after much back-and-forth on the reliability and validity of the proof against him – a few letters vouching for his integrity and innocence made their way to Abraham Lincoln from ranking military officials. These were enough to convince Lincoln to assemble a civilian commission to review the evidence against Hatch and decide on his innocence or guilt. Although the evidence was strong, the commission cleared him of all guilt and he was returned to active duty shortly thereafter.
So, that sets the tone for the unsavory dealings happening while the Sultana was being boarded for the last time.
So, when the Sultana left New Orleans for the last time, Mason’s chief engineer, Nathan Wintringer, had received reports that the boilers on the Sultana had been patched and repaired on their two previous trips south. When Wintringer noticed steam escaping from a crack in the middle larboard boiler (larboard is an older term, meaning the port, or left side of a boat), he was insistent that no progress be made past Vicksburg until the necessary repairs had been completed. They even travelled the rest of the way to Vicksburg at a lower speed so as to not put strain on the already questionable boilers.
While the Sultana was making its way slowly up the river toward Vicksburg, General Charles Dana – one of the people that assisted in Hatch being released after defrauding the government as mentioned earlier – was ordering Captain Frederic Speed to make sure that 1,000 soldiers were loaded onto each steamer that was docking at Vicksburg. Keep in mind that I earlier mentioned that the Sultana could only comfortably, safely – or legally – carry a maximum of 376 passengers. The Sultana finally docked in Vicksburg at 8:45am on April 23rd.
At this point, the Sultana’s engineer – Nathan Wintringer – sought out a local boilermaker, R.G. Taylor, to examine and repair the boilers on the steamer, and refused to disembark again until the repairs were complete. He found a bulge in the middle larboard boiler and questioned why the repairs had not been performed while they docked in New Orleans. Taylor was then instructed to repair the bulging seam quickly and to make the steamer ready to leave as quickly as possible. Taylor made it known that two sheets needed to be replaced on the boiler to prevent further damage and refused to have anything to do with the Sultana unless he could perform the proper repair work. Wintringer convinced Taylor to only patch the boiler on the back of Mason’s promise that he would have the full extent of repair done to the boiler once the steamer docked in St. Louis. Once the patch job was completed, Taylor told Mason and Wintringer that he still did not deem the Sultana ready for travel and told them that the boilers appeared to have been burned on the previous leg of the trip due to insufficient water supply.
Because the preparations for loading prisoners had not yet been completed due to the short time between boats, it was ordered by Captain Speed that no prisoners were to board the Sultana. In response to this, Mason visited Hatch at his boarding house in Vicksburg to convince him to provide a full load of prisoners on board the Sultana. After expressing his distaste with the speed at which Captain Speed was making the preparations for the prisoners to board, negotiations for loading the Sultana began. After much back-and-forth, a meeting took place between Hatch, Mason, Speed, and (after just arriving in Vicksburg) Captain George Williams. At the end of this meeting, Williams had determined that no further preparations were necessary – they would just bypass the distribution of bedrolls and essentials that they had been preparing for the newly-paroled prisoners, and that the Sultana would be boarded the following morning with all prisoners that remained in Vicksburg. This decision was based on an estimate that there were 1,300 to 1,400 prisoners remaining in Vicksburg.
There were other steamers coming heading in and out of Vicksburg during this time. One of them, named “The Lady Gay,” was veritably empty at the time the Sultana was being boarded, but was sent along up river after a telegram from Speed. He had been informed that the Lady Gay – a steamer from the same line – was prepared to take half of the men slotted for the Sultana, but based on the estimate that only 1,400 prisoners were waiting to board, he stood firm with his command that every one of them was to be loaded onto the Sultana.
And…on that note, we’re going to end this part of the story.
I love a good cliffhanger!
Stay tuned for the final part of this story, coming at ya in a couple of weeks.
Or maybe sooner depending on how things go.
Thanks again for listening to the story we unearthed!
And as always…
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Disclaimer: We are not historians, we are simply two people who are interested in memphis history. We have done research and are trying to provide accurate history as best we can. There is a possibility some of these statements are incorrect, but we have tried to verify all the info so that we are not putting out any untrue info. To the best of our knowledge, what we are saying is correct, but let us know if you have any things to add or correct. In the show notes, you will find links to the articles we used and book titles, etc to gather our information.
The Explosion of the SS Sultana – The Deadliest Maritime Disaster in American History, by Charles Rivers Editors, Published August 16th, 2014
Loss of the Sultana, by Chester D. Berry, Published 2017 by Big Byte Books
The Sultana Tragedy, by Jerry O. Potter, Published February 1992 by Pelican Publishing Company
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