Compared to the sleek lines of the Titanic, the Sultana looked like a disaster already, even before the tragedy hit it, in this, the last photograph taken of her as the Sultana passed Helena Arkansas in April of 1865, not quite a hundred and fifty years ago.
The Sultana had been in Vicksburg a couple of days before picking up Union POWs who had just been released from Confederate prisons. The government paid the steamers five dollars a head for passage to Cairo, Illinois. And although there were other boats at Vicksburg that stood empty, for some reason, all of the solders were put on the Sultana. A painting of the loading is a part of the Vicksburg Riverfront Murals. Historian Gordon Cotton says there seems to have been a shady deal going on for the Sultana to get all of the business.
Gordon Cotton: All the prisoners were put on one boat, the Sultana. It should have held maybe 300 people at the most. Instead it had over 2000 people on it. It would tilt to the side. The other boats were begging for their share of the gravy train. They got nothing.
Walt: The Pauline Carroll was sent on upstream just ahead of the Sultana with a mere 17 passengers. To make matters worse, while in Vicksburg, leaks in the Sultana's boilers were hastily patched, instead of taking the time to have them replaced.
Three nights later just above Memphis, on April 27th, the boilers of the Sultana exploded, instantly scalding to death scores of soldiers, severely burning others, splitting the boat in two and hurling even more people into the flood-swollen Mississippi River. No actual count could be made, but in all probability more than 17-hundred people died that night, making the Sultana the worse maritime disaster in American history. Yet few people have ever heard of it, or even heard of it at the time. For one thing, President Lincoln had just been assassinated less than two weeks earlier and his funeral train was still slowly working its way from Washington to Springfield, Illinois. That and updates on the capture of John Wilkes Booth took the headlines. Also this was on the heals of the Civil War and the public had grown numb to horrific numbers of people losing their lives in battles. So the Sultana disaster was hardly noticed.
There are few reminders of it today. My brother sent me this photo of the levee in Arkansas. The Sultana is about 40 feet under topsoil in a bean field just the other side behind locked gates. As for official markers, there is this one in Marion Arkansas, and the historic marker in Vicksburg and the mural on the riverfront wall. Those are about the only public reminders of the tragic boating disaster worse than the Titanic.
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