March 17, 2017

The Sinking of the Sultana: The United States’ Greatest Maritime Disaster

The sinking of the Titanic is often considered to be the worst maritime disaster of all time. More than 1500 people lost their lives aboard the Titanic and with several museums and a blockbuster movie commemorating the event, it’s no wonder we all believe that. However, as it turns out, the greatest maritime disaster in the United States occurred right here in Arkansas – just off the banks of the Mississippi River and resulted in more casualties than the Titanic.

Greed can drive humans to do things they may not normally do. Greed and a series of bad decisions based on that greed ultimately led to the deaths of nearly 1800 people April 27, 1865.

Our story begins in St. Louis on April 13, 1865. The Sultana, a Mississippi River side-wheel steamboat, was preparing for a journey down the Mississippi to New Orleans, Louisiana. While at port in Illinois two days later Captain J. Cass Mason learned of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. News traveled slowly in those days so he bought a stack of newspapers to carry with him as he traveled south to help spread the word.

April 1865 was a historic month for our country. Just days before Lincoln’s assassination, Robert E. Lee had surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at the Appomattox courthouse in Appomattox, Virginia. The Civil War, although an official declaration would not be made until December, was essentially over.

Things were rapidly changing in our country and when Captain Mason arrived at Vicksburg, MS he was approached by Lt. Col. Reuben Hatch, the chief quartermaster at Vicksburg, who offered to pay him money to help to transport recently released Union prisoners of war on his return trip up the river. Mason agreed to take on 1400 POW’s even though the Sultana only had a capacity of 376. The idea of being paid $5 per enlisted man and $10 per officer was enough to entice him to overload the boat.

Upon reaching New Orleans, Captain Mason loaded his ship with about 100 crew and passengers, some livestock and cargo and began the trek back to Vicksburg to pick up the released prisoners. Just outside of Vicksburg, the ship began experiencing trouble when one of the boilers sprang a leak. Of course, time and money were at stake so the Captain insisted the repairman only patch the boiler rather than replace it. While the work was completed, the released Union prisoners were brought aboard.


This image is public domain.

Captain Mason was expecting about 1400 POWs which was already well over the legal capacity of the boat. For reasons that may have had to do with bribery, a paperwork mixup, or just human error – 2100 Union prisoners were loaded onto the Sultana. The decks of the ship were literally bursting with people.

In the early morning hours of April 27, 1865, tragedy struck when the already overworked and poorly repaired boiler exploded. This led to the explosion of two additional boilers. Passengers were flung into the water and a large hole was torn into the boat. The wooden construction of the boat led to a massive fire and the thousands of passengers found themselves trapped in a flaming inferno. Those who managed to survive the explosion and subsequent fire found themselves diving into the icy waters of the Mississippi where many died of hypothermia.

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Approximately 700 passengers survived although many suffered serious burns and many died within a short time following. Many of the survivors joined together to form the National Sultana Survivors Association and the group met regularly until the late 1920s when only a few living members remained. Many descendants of the survivors are now pivotal in keeping the memory of this disaster alive.

The boat sank to the bottom of the river and was never recovered. The river changed course after the disaster and the wreckage of the Sultana is now buried under a field on private property near Marion, Arkansas.

Over the last few years, the residents of Marion, Arkansas along with descendants of the Sultana victims have strived to give a voice to those lost in this tragedy by creating a temporary exhibit in a shopping plaza and eventually opening a full-fledged museum in 2015 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the disaster. The city has pledged over $400,000 to expand and improve the museum to a more permanent location in the coming years.

Gene Salecker, a Sultana historian, has donated many artifacts for the museum to display. Visitors to the museum can see a wonderful collection of artifacts from the disaster as well as replicas of the Sultana.

The Sultana Museum is small but jam-packed with interesting history. It is well worth the trip and would make a great stop on a trip to Memphis.

The Sultana Disaster Museum is open to the public Thursday-Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Sundays from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Contact the Chamber of Commerce at 870-739-6041 to arrange a group tour. Admission cost $8 for adults, $5 for children under 12. You can also find information on their web page and Facebook page.

All photos provided with permission from Rosalind O’Neil and the Marion Chamber of Commerce unless otherwise noted.

Julie Kohl

Arkansas Women Blogger's Calendar Cultivator and member Julie Kohl writes about her adventures with food, recipes, crafts and creativity on her blog JulieDKohl. As former Yankee who was "converted" to the south by her husband, Julie has grasped on to rural life in a sleepy, blink-your-eyes-and-you'll-miss-it town in east central Arkansas. She raises chickens, horses, and English mastiffs and spends her summers off from teaching art growing a herb garden and crafting all kinds of delicious recipes.

View Julie's website