Today, April 27, marks the 149th Anniversary of the sinking of the steamboat Sultana, The boat was carrying 2,300 recently freed Union prisoners of war, plus crew and civilian passengers. A boiler explosion on this day in 1865 killed some 1,700 people.
The ship was roughly 7 miles north of Memphis when at 2 a.m., three of the steamship’s four boilers exploded. The Sultana was legally registered to carry 376 people and was carrying six times more than that on board. The Sultana’s captain, J. Cass Mason, agreed to carry the troops at 3 dollars a head. One army officer who helped send soldiers onto the boat reportedly got a 50-cent kickback for each soldier. The men were loaded in so tightly they could find no place to sleep and could barely find room to stand. Mason died in the sinking.
This was the worst maritime disaster in US history, but was not as well covered at the time due to competing stories. The day before, John Wilkes Booth was captured, and General Joseph Johnston surrendered the last major Confederate army. These stories, marking the end of a long and bloody struggle, overshadowed the sinking of the steamer.
This disaster is little known today. The Sultana herself lies buried under a soybean field near Marion, Arkansas, due to shifting of the Mississippi River’s channel over the decades since 1865.
There is a memorial to those who perished in the disaster at Mt. Olive Baptist Church, 2500 Maryville Pike in Knoxville.