Season 2: Episode Ten: The Sultana Disaster: Part 2

It’s April, 1865… The Sultana has been docked in Vicksburg, MS, preparing to load far more passengers than the steamer is equipped to hold. The passengers are almost entirely Union soldiers who are being paroled from the Cahaba or Andersonville Confederate prison camps, in which they have experienced hellish living conditions – not to mention already having experienced the unimaginable horrors of battle. 

The Sultana’s chief engineer, Nathan Wintringer, has learned from a local boilermaker R.G. Taylor that substantial repair needs to happen to one of the steamer’s boilers, and Taylor refuses to sign off on its departure from Vicksburg until the necessary repairs have been made. Wintringer finally convinces Taylor to only patch the boiler, with the promise that the full repair will be done when the steamer is finally docked in St. Louis. 

The steamer is hastily being prepped for its journey north, skipping over pretty much anything that might make the journey comfortable for its passengers, and orders are being delivered to load all of the 1,400 passengers presumed to be awaiting transport, which will severely overload the steamer. This order comes, in part, from an attempt at personal monetary gain, and part from misinformation passed along about the actual number of potential passengers present at that time in Vicksburg. The federal government was offering to pay $5 per enlisted man and $10 per officer for any vessel willing to transport the parolees up the Mississippi on their way back home. Colonel Ruben Hatch – Chief Quartermaster of the Union Army in Vicksburg, promised J. Cass Mason – Captain of the Sultana, as many paroled prisoners as he could supply, presumably in exchange for a cut of the profits. Hatch already had a sordid history in regards to accepting kickbacks and bribes during his time in service, and would eventually be relieved of his duties for that exact thing. 

Captains George Williams and Frederic Speed seemed to be determined to expedite the Sultana’s passenger loading by whatever means necessary, but their haste had a cost. Bedrolls, wrapped together with personal care items, were meant to be distributed to each paroled prisoner loaded onto the Sultana. This process was started, but quickly seen as something that might delay the steamer’s loading and departure, risking their personal monetary gain. Since the bedrolls were not prepared ahead of time, they were not able to use the distribution of those items as a gauge of how many people had been loaded onto the steamer. This is not the sole reason for the overloading of the Sultana – no, THAT was a volatile mixture of greed, incompetence, and negligence – but this certainly contributed.

So, finally the Sultana is fully loaded, or rather – OVERloaded, and powered by compromised boilers, prepared to depart from Vicksburg. This steamer, with its maximum passenger capacity of fewer than 400, was now carrying around 2,500 passengers – most of them paroled prisoners of war. More than a few times, opportunities arose for them to pass off some of their passengers to other steamers that left the Vicksburg docks at less than capacity – opportunities which were tragically passed up for personal gain. 

The prisoners aboard the Sultana were in great spirits upon departing Vicksburg, thinking they were out of harm’s way – many of them singing songs, dancing, laughing, and sharing with each other the many things that they were going to do upon their arrival at their homes. Their spirits were not dampened, even by the limited rations of hard bread and salted meat they were given to eat aboard the vessel. When Captain Mason ordered a stop at Helena, Arkansas to bring on more supplies, a photographer who was stunned by the massive number of people aboard the Sultana, took a very famous photograph of the steamer. When the passengers noticed their picture being taken, many of them rushed to the side of the vessel in an attempt to participate in the photo. This shift in weight very nearly toppled the Sultana. This photograph is not only the only known picture of the Sultana from its last trip, but the last known photograph of the passengers on board. 

The Sultana docked for the final time at 6:30PM on April 26th, 1865 in Memphis. This happened to be the same day that John Wilkes Booth was killed by Union troops in Virginia. Some of the soldiers decided to head to a local saloon while the ship was being unloaded in Memphis, while some of them stayed aboard. The Sultana even picked up a few passengers during its short stop in Memphis. One of them, the fantastically-named yet unlucky Epenetus W. McIntosh, was actually meant to make the rest of his journey on the Henry Ames, another passenger vessel docked at Memphis, but he returned too late after a quick trip into town and the steamer had already departed. He then boarded the Sultana, having no idea that only a short while later he would be battling the currents of the Mississippi River. 

The Sultana departed from Memphis at around 11:00 on the evening of the 26th, heading just across the river to a coaling station in Hope, Arkansas where she was loaded with 1,000 bushels of coal. A soldier named George Downing had gone into Memphis to visit friends, but was too late returning, and he watched as the Sultana pulled up to the coaling station across the river. He had been sent a few dollars by family members, which he obtained in Vicksburg, and he used that money to hire a skiff to take him across the river where he boarded the doomed steamer, placing himself, unknowingly, right back in harm’s way.

The Sultana left the coaling station at 1:00AM on the 27th, headed north toward Cairo, Illinois. The Mississippi River was flooded pretty badly in April of 1865, having no levee system to manage its flow, and at parts just north of Memphis, measured up to 4 miles across. The Sultana’s pilot, George Kayton, navigated through the dark waters as the passengers slept, unaware of the danger that lay ahead. 

So, we should talk a bit about the layout and structure of the Sultana, just to further prove how ill-suited the steamer was for the load it was carrying. Kayton piloted the vessel from the pilothouse, which was the top level of the steamer’s superstructure. Below him were the main deck, the boiler deck, and the hurricane deck. The hurricane deck also housed the texas deck,  holding the crew’s quarters, on which the pilothouse sat. Because of the size of the steamer’s superstructure, with its many levels, the walls and floors of each level had to be built with flimsier, lightweight wood in order to reduce the weight. The massive number of passengers aboard the Sultana on this trip were making the floors of each level sag tremendously. If anything were to happen to the main supports of the superstructure, each level would likely collapse. The upper decks were also coated with paint containing turpentine, benzine, and other combustibles. One author referred to the upper levels of the Sultana as “an orderly pile of kindling wood.”

So, the Sultana, prepped for fiery terror as much as a boat could be, proceeded up river at its 9 MPH cruising speed. Many of the passengers were resting soundly, some for the first time in ages, bringing the Sultana’s deck to a haunting lull. At a little before 2:00 in the morning on April 27th, as the steamer began to round a bend in the river just 7 miles north of Memphis, three of the Sultana’s four boilers erupted, making a sound, as described by a witness, like “a hundred earthquakes.”

The force of the explosion propelled many passengers into the air, landing them in the cold, turbulent waters of the Mississippi River, with only debris to cling to. Many others were trapped under the collapsing decks, and some who were closer to the boilers were killed instantly. Those that were lucky enough to survive the initial explosion, and found themselves in the frigid, muddy water, found that their luck was quickly fading as they struggled to paddle through the turbulence. Some held on for dear life to fragments of the steamer’s deck, severed wooden railings, or even horses which had been jettisoned from the steamer and were also struggling to stay afloat.

To add insult (or rather, more injury) to injury, shortly after the initial explosion, a deluge of boiling water from the steamer’s boilers rained down on the survivors, burning, blinding, and even killing some of them. One survivor of the explosion described the event by saying, 

“The agonizing shrieks and groans of the injured and dying were heart-rendering, and the stench of burning flesh was intolerable and beyond any power of description.”

Let’s keep in mind two factors that were at play during this horrible event that made it massively worse. The first is this… Aside from times when the river is super high due to heavy rain, we Memphians are used to seeing the Mississippi river at a width of about a half mile, or a little more. Well, parts of the river used to be much wider, especially without our modern interstate system and bridges that connect us to the other side of the river. The second factor is that a large number of these passengers could not swim. It was reported that the Sultana was midstream when the explosion happened, which means that the ejected passengers could very well have been more than a mile from either shore.

The passengers that were thrown from the steamer, or had the chance to jump – and who were lucky enough not to be hit by the boiling water, flaming debris, or humans or animals (dead or living) – had a slim chance of finding something to cling to which was buoyant enough to allow them to paddle to safety. Those who couldn’t reach any floating debris were left to rely on their own strength, endurance, survival instincts, and determination to make the long swim to shore through the turbulent current of the Mississippi. Many did not make it.

While we don’t have the time to go into the stories of the individual survivors, there are many, and they all paint a very vivid picture of the horrific scene that unfolded. You should check out the main source for this episode,The Sultana Tragedy: America’s Greatest Maritime Disaster by Jerry O. Potter for more stories from the lucky few that survived this terrible event. For a first-hand account from a survivor, written by the survivor, check out The Loss of the Sutana, by Chester D. Berry

William Alwood, shipmate of the steamer Bostonia II, noticed a glow as he rounded the riverbend at Memphis, first thinking it was a building fire in the city. When he realized he was looking instead at a vessel that was on fire, his captain gave orders to lower the steamer’s yawl and it headed toward the Sultana’s wreckage to assist with rescue. Other vessels – the Silver Spray, the Marble City, the Essex, the Tyler, the Grossbeak, and the Rose Hambleton – followed suit over the next early morning hours, and the rescue attempt was fully underway.

The Sultana finally came to rest against Chicken Island, just upriver from Mound City, AR. As the sun rose, the rescue attempts continued and more and more survivors began washing up on the shores. Some of the survivors, stranded in trees, or clutching the driftwood that took them to safety, celebrated by singing together and laughing. Some men – a group of 25 or so – had actually survived on the bow of the Sultana, but they sustained very serious burns and other injuries. However, as this area finally caught fire, these men were forced to move to an approaching raft a few at a time and were transported to safety. Wounded survivors were taken in and treated at local hospitals such as the Gayoso and Overton hospitals, and others were transported to The Soldiers Home, a military hospital, which is now known as the Hunt-Phelan Home. 

Hunt-Phelan is on the east end of Beale St, just past Danny Thomas. In the recent past, the home had been used for a wedding venue, but I believe it is currently shut down. You can still drive by it though. 

Memphians who were affected by the news of the explosion on the Sultana, responded in a very compassionate and charitable way. Some began collecting food, clothing, and living essentials for the survivors, along with money for lodging and supplies. Others reacted in-kind by volunteering to assist in funeral preparations, preparing the bodies of the dead or simply offering up their homes for survivors. 

Many of the survivors who were heading toward Camp Chase for parole after the war were soon placed in the last location they would want to be after surviving a steamer catastrophe… another steamer. Understandably, some were panicked about being back on a water vessel on the same stretch of river. I can’t imagine what kind of post-traumatic stress this caused, but I think I might have to huddle somewhere on the steamer, far away from its boilers, and stay there for the duration. 

As the body recovery efforts began, they quickly realized that it was going to be very difficult to identify many of the dead, as they really had no possessions on them, and what paperwork the paroled soldiers may have had with them at the beginning of the trip would certainly have been destroyed during the explosion, or afterwards by the elements. Due to the condition of some of the bodies after sitting in freezing river water or being burned in the blast, many identifying features simply were no longer visible. Some of the dead were placed in two long trenches near the site of the Sultana’s wreckage at the head of Chicken Island. Most of the unidentified or unclaimed bodies were buried in Elmwood Cemetery. When the National Military Cemetery was built in 1867, most of the military dead were reburied there from Elmwood. Most of those graves, sadly, only read “Unknown US Soldier.” A monument was erected in 1989 in Elmwood Cemetery, near the unmarked graves of a few of the Sultana’s victims. 

The total number of deaths that occurred from the Sultana disaster is a bit unclear. It will always be an approximation due to the varying data on how many people were loaded onto the Sultana in the first place, along with shoddy record-keeping methods available at the end of the Civil War. The original report, in 1865, estimated the death toll at 1,238, based on a total passenger count of 2,021. However, the Sultana could have had as many as 2,500 people loaded on it. The official death toll, reported by the Customs Department at Memphis, is 1,547. However, the number is more likely to be upwards of 1,800 dead. Regardless of however many it was, every one of them was preventable, unnecessary, and a result of greed of personal gain. 

When investigations began into the cause of the explosion, many theories came to light, and people began scrambling to explain away their culpability. The pilot of the Sultana, George Kayton, testified before the investigative board that, in his opinion, the fires on the steamer could have been extinguished if the fire buckets had not been blown off the ship by the explosion, which was ridiculous. He also said that the steamer was fully stocked with life preservers… Unfortunately, the Sultana was fully stocked with a whopping 76 life preservers. 

Even if the ship had the appropriate number of passengers on board, 377 or so, 76 life preservers are still nowhere near enough. 

The subject of bribery came up in the investigation as well, with Hatch’s chief clerk testifying that two competing steamboat lines were offering 50 cents a head to secure the army’s contract to transport the prisoners from Cahaba and Andersonville. It was also said that after Hatch learned about the possibility of somewhere between 2,000 and 2,500 passengers waiting to be loaded onto the Sultana, that he made no attempts to verify whether or not his vessel could safely manage that load. Hatch testified that he was not in charge of the prisoner transfer, and that he would have put no more than 1,500 people on the Sultana if it had been in his power. This conflicts directly with Captain Kerns’s testimony, saying that he had instructed Hatch to divide the prisoners onto other steamers. Speed also maintained that Hatch had made the decision to load the excess prisoners onto the Sultana. Basically it was all a big blame game. 

At the end of the government inquiries, there were several theories offered as to the cause of the explosion. William Rowberry, the Sultana’s first mate, insisted that some sort of explosive device, or “infernal machine,” as he called it, must have been stashed in the steamer’s coal supply by a saboteur. This was based on the presence of a scorched artillery shell that was found in the wreckage at the Sultana’s final resting place. The most likely cause, though, is the overloaded steamer paired with a damaged boiler. 

Even with all of the evidence of bribery and negligence, not much punishment was handed down for anyone involved. Reuben Hatch was relieved of his duties as chief quartermaster for the Department of Mississippi, and deemed mentally unfit to be a quartermaster. Later, after other dealings involving a large amount of missing government funds, he was discharged from the army. Frederic Speed, who was in charge of the ex-prisoner transport, was found guilty of the negligent overcrowding of the Sultana, but the verdict was overturned due to the fact that he was off-site all day and didn’t personally place any passengers on the steamer. In the end, no one was held responsible for this tragic and preventable loss of life.

Like most events like this one, there were a few alternate theories floating around as to the cause of the explosion. In 1888, William Streetor, from St. Louis, claimed that his old business partner, Robert Louden, confessed to sabotaging the Sultana by the use of a “coal torpedo” (an explosive disguised as a piece of coal), while they were drinking in a saloon. Louden had been a Confederate agent and saboteur who operated in and around St. Louis, and had been responsible for the arson of the steamboat Ruth. However, Louden’s claim is controversial, and most scholars support the official explanation. The location of the explosion, from the top rear of the boilers and far away from the fireboxes, indicates that Louden’s claim of using a coal torpedo to sabotage the Sultana was nothing more than a boastful claim. Another claim was that a farmer that was chopping wood on the riverside for passing steamboats had hollowed out a log, filled it with gunpowder, and placed it in a batch of furnace wood that was mistakenly loaded on the Sultana. However, this claim is negated by the fact that the Sultana was a coal burning steamer, not a wood burner. 

To understand why such a horrible disaster like the Sultana’s story passed nearly unnoticed by most of the country, and why it has since faded into the background of American history, you will need to look at the other events that were happening at that time in our country. First, the Civil War had ended just weeks before the Sultana’s explosion. No small news there… 

Also, just a few days before, President Lincoln was assassinated, so most media outlets were focused on stories of the assassination, the potential conspiracy, and the funeral. And lastly, the day before the disaster, as we mentioned earlier, John Wilkes Boothe was killed by Union Troops. This would end up pushing stories of the Sultana to the back pages of their publications. 

The larger media publications were mostly in the eastern portion of the country, so as the Sultana disaster happened in the western portion of the country (as it was at the time) it was deemed more removed and less relevant to their reporting focus, especially considering that that boat was filled with enlisted men, not colonels or generals. Unfortunately, due to the lack of reporting presence on the Sultana disaster, it has largely been forgotten even in recent days. This goes back to the point we demonstrated in our last episode that what most people believe to be the most deadly maritime disaster in US history is the sinking of the Titanic. 

There are those, however, that did not forget this tragic event. A group of Sultana survivors from East Tennessee formed a survivor association, which met annually on April 27th, for many years following the tragedy. On July 4th of 1916, they erected a Sultana monument at the Mount Olive Cemetery near Knoxville. On its sides are inscribed the names of 365 Tennesseeans who were aboard the steamer. The face of the monument reads:

“In memory of the men who were on the Sultana that was destroyed April 27, 1865, by explosion on the Mississippi River near Memphis, Tennessee.”

Over the years, this group grew smaller and smaller, until the Knoxville Journal reported on the meeting in 1930, on the 65th anniversary of the disaster:

“A stocky man, with white mustache and brown-gray hair, his shoulders stooped with cares of eighty-four years, will go today from his home in Knoxville to the “Rockford Presbyterian” church, and there elect himself to all of the offices of the Sultana Survivors’ association. Alone, he will attend what would have been a reunion had another of his comrades lived. There will be speeches—and he will make them, dinner, and he will eat it; he will call a business session, answer the roll, close the meeting, and return to his home. He is the last survivor of East Tennessee Federal soldiers who were saved when the Sultana sank near Memphis, with a death toll of 1328 on April 27, 1865. Sixty-five years ago today. Pleasant Marion Keeble, . . . the lone survivor, will observe the memory of his comrades today and keep the pledge he made with them a half century ago. Then, there were more than a hundred who met annually. Twenty years ago there were forty, ten years ago there were eleven. In 1928 four were living, at the reunion last year there were two—now there is only one.”

Luckily, this tragedy has not been forgotten by a group of people in Marion, Arkansas. In 2015, the Sultana Disaster Museum was opened at 104 Washington Street in Marion, to help people learn about this largely forgotten event. The museum covers the steamer itself, from construction to destruction, as well as many of the victim, rescuer, witness, and survivor stories involved. The museum currently resides in a very small building, but they have recently acquired the historic Marion High School gymnasium, along with one million dollars in federal funding from the American Rescue Plan. They are going to use that funding to construct a modern museum in that gymnasium…  and it looks really amazing. The mock-ups can be seen on their website at . 

Also, speaking of their website, you can purchase a memorial brick at the new site, in honor of one of the victims of the Sultana tragedy.  Your donation will place a  4×8″ or 8×8″ brick to be placed in the Memorial Plaza outside the new museum with your custom message engraved. For your donation, you will receive a donor certificate showing your brick as well as a miniature souvenir brick. Just look for “Brick Campaign” among the menu options on their website. 

We planned on going to the museum before this episode came out, but it wasn’t in the cards. Soon though because in researching this story, it’s made us even more interested in it. We’ll update with pictures and additional info when we do go.

So there you have it, the longest anticipated follow up episode in the history of history podcasts. 

If it’s been a while since you’ve listened to the first half, go back and give it a listen. It really is an interesting and maddening story. 

We hope you enjoyed this final episode of our second season of Unearthed: Memphis!

Stay tuned for season 3!

Spoiler alert, it’s all about the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1878. 

Thanks again for listening to the story we unearthed!
And as always…

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Check out our website at, Instagram @unearthedmemphis, Facebook at, Twitter @unearthed901 or drop us an email at We love to hear from everyone! Questions, comments, suggestions, corrections, or just chatter is appreciated and enjoyed! 

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 worst Civil War tragedy few remember

Potter, Jerry O.. Sultana Tragedy, The: America’s Greatest Maritime Disaster . Pelican Publishing. Kindle Edition

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