The bitter four-year civil war which had torn the American nation apart, pitting North against South, was finally over, and captured Union soldiers who had been held in Confederacy prisons in the South could at last look forward to a reunion with their families. Weakened and exhausted though they were by the harsh conditions of their incarceration, many hundreds of freed prisoners were in understandably high spirits as they boarded the paddle steamer Sultana at the Mississippi river port of Vicksburg on the evening of April 24 1865.
The Sultana was a typical Mississippi side-wheeler; built for the cotton trade, it had often plied the mighty river as a troop carrier during the war. It had left New Orleans three days previously on the long river journey north to Cincinnati, with a regular complement of cabin passengers and a cargo of sugar and livestock.
The problems started at Vicksburg when the crew were powerless to prevent the horde of ex-Union soldiers who pressed their way on board. When the steamer set sail again it was carrying some 2,300 passengers – six times its authorized capacity. The spring flood waters were at their height and the Sultana’s progress was slow against the strong current. When the boat docked two days later at Memphis its boilers were found to be leaking and had to be repaired. Shortly after resuming its passage the boilers gave out under the huge strain and a massive explosion lit up the night sky. The vessel was blown apart and soon ablaze. Those on board, many of whom were unable to swim as well as enfeebled by the ordeal of their captivity, were forced to make a ghastly choice between a watery grave in the ice-cold river or being burned alive.
When was the Sultana Steamboat Tragedy: April 27 1865
Where was the Sultana Steamboat Tragedy: Mississippi River, north of Mephis, Tennessee, USA
What was the Sultana Steamboat Tragedy death toll: Exact figures are unknown as there was no roll-call of the passengers, but estimates of deaths range between 1500 and 1900. Certainly there were only a few hundred survivors.
You should know: The tragedy got very little press coverage at the time as everyone’s attention was focused on the end of the war. The final surrender of the Confederacy forces had taken place only the day before.