SS Sultana in flames before sinking with great loss of life. (Library of Congress)
What should have been a happy homecoming for more than 2,100 paroled Union soldiers from Andersonville and Cahaba prison camps, ended tragically in the deadliest maritime disaster in the history of the United States. The Sultana, the vessel carrying the paroled soldiers with homes in Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, and West Virginia, began its journey up the swollen spring current of the Mississippi on the night of April 24th, leaving Vicksburg bound for Cairo, Illinois. With a maximum capacity slated at 376 passengers, the Sultana was grossly overcrowded with civilians, crew, and POWs. The decks were stuffed so thoroughly with the weakened prisoners chiefly because it was lucrative business. The US government promised river boat captains a payment of $5 per prisoner, for ferrying them up river to Cairo. As a result, the Sultana, like many other boats before her, prioritized a quick windfall profit above the safety of her passengers. An even more egregious oversight which may have led directly to the disaster was the captain’s decision to patch one of the Sultana’s boilers as opposed to taking more time and finances to repair it in the proper manner. Thus, when she lurched out of Vicksburg, decks crammed with freshly released prisoners, the Sultana was a ticking time bomb. In the early morning hours of April 27th, the ill-fated voyage came to an abrupt end when the hastily repaired boiler of the Sultana exploded, causing two others to burst violently and quickly engulfed the ships superstructure in flame. Men who survived the horrific explosion were hurled or jumped into the Mississippi’s swift and frigid waters, where scores of men drowned or succumbed to hypothermia. 800 passengers survived the initial horrendous explosion and swirling rapids, yet 200 of these would later perish in hospitals due to ghastly burns. In all, approximately 1,700 passengers of the original 2,500 perished along the banks of the Mississippi.