Sultana: Funeral Pyre on the Water

Steven Neill


� Copyright 2020 by Steven Neill


Photo of the Sultana before the disaster.

Sultana: Funeral Pyre on the Water

The Sultana
Measuring 260' in length with a draft of only 34" yet carrying a load of 1,000 tons, the Sultana was a perfect side paddled riverboat for travel on the Mississippi, Ohio, and Tennessee rivers. Launched in January 1863, the Sultana (which meant a sultan's wife, sister, or mother) was a top-rated boat for river travel during the war. Its legal capacity was 376 passengers and crew. During the war, it served the North well by transporting men, supplies, and munitions all across the river systems. (Elliott J. W., 2011)

The Quick Fix
In the closing days of the American Civil War, the Union hired steamboats to transport the newly freed Union prisoners from Andersonville prison camp in Georgia to Cairo, Illinois, for release from the Army. The Federal government was paying a substantial $5.00 per soldier and $10.00 per officer to get these men home. The transport system was, however, filled with corruption as the officials in charge of sending the men north demanded a kickback from the shipowner to assign men to a particular ship. (Ishak, 2019) Sultana Captain J. Cass Mason, (who was also one of the ships' owners) was desperate to get his share of the Federal payout, but on April 21, one of the boilers developed a leak and required repairing. The boilermaker, R.G. Taylor, told Captain Mason that two sheets on the boiler needed replacing. Concerned about time and money, Captain Mason refused and told Taylor to patch the boiler instead. Taylor disagreed with Mason but made the patch for the Sultana anyway.

Room for One More
Sultana arrived in Vicksburg on April 24 and found two other ships already waiting for soldiers to take to Cairo. Captain Mason and other Sultana officers lobbied and bribed prison officials to let their steamboat take all the soldiers. The tactic worked. The Sultana left the dock on the evening of April 24, 1865, with approximately 2,100 troops, 200 civilians, and cargo, more than six times its legal carrying capacity. (LMS, 2019)

Smoke on the Water
Overburdened and poorly patched, Sultana struggled against a flooded river and made it seven miles north of Memphis, TN, on April 27. At approximately 2 am, one of the boilers burst to send red-hot shrapnel and steam to the decks above, instantly killing or maiming scores of passengers. The explosion hurled people and debris into the air and out into the swollen, frigid river. Passengers threw doors, shutters, mattresses, bales of hay, and anything they thought would float overboard and tried to jump onto it in hopes of staying afloat.

"At the time of the explosion McKelvy and I were lying together asleep, and it is a matter of wonder to me how I escaped when he was so seriously injured . . . How far or how high I was blown into the air I do not know, but I remember that my feet first struck, water and except being slightly hurt on my left side I suffered but little from the shock. . . . It is my opinion that the explosion was caused by a torpedo having been placed in the coal by the Confederates at the last coaling station. One of the boilers of the Sultana had just been repaired at Vicksburg. Many of the men who lost their lives were soldiers who had been prisoners for many months, some even for twenty months." P. L. Horn (Berry, 1892)

The terrified people trampled each other, trying to escape the inferno on the boat. Those who could not swim looked desperately for anything afloat to hang onto before jumping into the turbulent water. At the start of the disaster, many passengers made a mad dash for Sultanas' lifeboat, and those who were lucky enough to get onboard fought off their fellow passengers to keep from being pulled out of it. After releasing the ropes, the boat landed upside down in the river, drowning most of its occupants.

"About two o'clock in the morning of April the 27t, the boiler of the boat exploded. When this took place, I was sleeping on the bow of the boat with my head against one of the cable posts.  Seth H. Davenport was at my left, and on his left was a man who was killed. A piece of iron glanced my head, and in the excitement, I thought the rebels had fired a battery on us. . . The front part of the cabin and the pilothouse were blown to atoms, and the stairway damaged so it could not be traveled. The boat was crowded with soldiers from the boiler deck to the hurricane deck. a man stood on the lower part of the stairway and hallooed, "the boat is sinking!" The men rushed to the bow of the boat and jumped overboard as fast as they could, tumbling into the river upon each other and going down into the deep by the hundreds." Simeon D. Chelf (Berry, 1892)

The explosion had been heard in Memphis, some seven miles away, alerting people of the disaster downriver. It took the rescuers over two hours to get to the disaster site, which left little to do but retrieve the wounded and the dead. Boats searched for survivors all morning but stopped looking by midday. Of the estimated 2,300 passengers, only 600 survived. The rest were killed in the explosion, drowned in the dangerous currents, or died soon after their rescue.

"On the morning of April 27, 1865, at about two o'clock, I was asleep dreaming of home and loved ones, of whom I had not heard a word for about ten long months that I had spent in Andersonville prison. Suddenly I was awakened by upheaval and crashing of timbers. I attempted to arise from my recumbent position. As I threw up my hands to explore my surroundings, I got them severely burned and was horrified to find that my efforts to extricate myself were fruitless, and the heat was stifling. I could not tell where I was, but could hear the groans of the wounded and the shrieks of the women mingling with the crackling noise of the flames and the hissing of the white steam that enveloped the boat for a time. . . . I crawled out as black and begrimed as a coal digger. I then discovered that I had been under a piece of boiler iron about a half of a circle, both ends being blocked with timbers and debris thrown hither and thither by the force of the explosion." W. P. Madden (Berry, 1892)

Shifting Blame
On April 30, 1865, Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, created a board of inquiry to investigate the Sultana disaster. The committee received testimony from surviving crew, passengers, and steamboat experts, but their reports only shifted blame from one person to another. Without conclusive evidence, the board decided that it was insufficient water in the boilers creating the explosion, not the overcrowding, which caused the catastrophe. No individual would be blamed for the tragedy; no one was charged with a crime for so grossly overloading the Sultana, and none of the victims ever received compensation for their loss. (Elliott J. T., 1913) 

The Sultana tragedy remains Americas' greatest maritime disaster, killing more people than those who perished aboard the HMS Titanic some 47 years later. Sadly, the tragic story remains mostly forgotten in the wake of Lincolns' assassination and the end of the Civil War.


Photo of information marker.

Berry, C. D. (1892). Loss of the Sultana and Reminiscences of Survivors. In C. D. Berry, Loss of the Sultana and Reminiscences of Survivors (pp. 88, 177, 229 - 230). Lansing: Darius D. Thorp.

Elliott, J. T. (1913). The Sultana Disaster. In J. T. Elliott, The Sultana Disaster (pp. 193 - 194). Indianapolis: Edward J. Hecker.

Elliott, J. W. (2011, 04 27). On this date in 1865: Tragedy on the Mississippi – Sultana explodes, thousands die. Retrieved 08 08, 2019, from This Week in the Civil War:

Ishak, N. (2019, 07 30). The Forgotten Explosion Of The Sultana, The Worst Maritime Disaster In American History. Retrieved 08 08, 2019, from allthat'

LMS. (2019). The Sultana Disaster. Retrieved 08 08, 2019, from Lincoln Memorial Shrine:

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Steven Neill is from Spokane Valley, WA. He has been an avid writer for almost 20 years. Steve has had articles published for the Journal of the American Revolution, and the North Country Center for Independent Living (four articles). He graduated from Whitworth University with a Bachelor’s degree in Organizational Management with a minor in English, received a certificate of Merit from Legends, Creative Writing Club, and served on the Spokane Valley Planning Committee for three and a half years. Steve is transitioning to a full-time freelance writer.

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