The Titanic…and the Sultana

Chances are, you’ve heard of the first, but not the second. Both were vessels. Both sank, disastrously. Both tragedies occurred in April. The Titanic sank on April 15, 1912…100 years ago this month. The Sultana sank in the early morning hours of April 27, 1865…147 years ago today. The Titanic sank in the North Atlantic, in icy waters 300 miles south of Newfoundland. The Sultana sank on the Mississippi River.

The sinking of the Titanic took 1514 lives. The sinking of the Sultana killed between 1300-1900, with the official toll listed at 1547.

Sad. But also puzzling.

Why is the former event an icon for disaster, while the latter is almost unknown today? Where’s the media commemoration of the greatest maritime disaster in America’s history?

Don’t know the reasons, but here’s a little more background on the Sultana (the Wikipedia article provides a fuller description, and even a photograph)[1]. At the close of the Civil War, Union soldiers couldn’t get home fast enough. They crowded every means of transport. Mississippi waterfronts were clogged with young men trying to get north. Riverboats were enjoying what promised to be a short-lived boom. The Sultana was one such. The day before, coming north carrying only 100 passengers and a crew of 80, it developed a leak in the boiler. The boat’s captain, eager to avoid any revenue loss, had a quick patch done in Memphis (avoiding the three-day delay that would have been required to change out the bad boiler).  When the ship set off from Memphis in the evening hours of April 26th, it was groaning under the load of 2400 men on a ship rated for 376. To add to the tragedy, many of the 2000+ soldiers who had crowded on board had been only recently released from the notorious Confederate POW camps of Cahawba and Andersonville. Most were in the most fragile health. They’d barely survived one horror. Soon they’d find themselves in another. Sometime around 2:00 a.m., when the Sultana was no more than ten miles north of Memphis, perhaps as many as three of her four boilers blew. Hundreds were killed outright in the explosion, or subsequently died from burns. Others were drowned or died from hypothermia. [The spring runoff of the Mississippi was no warmer than that iceberg-infested northern Atlantic would be in 1912.] Survivors made their way home with varying degrees of difficulty. In many cases, once they’d arrived, their troubles were just beginning. Getting the medical help and pensions they had coming would engage some in years of struggle. The stories are all-too-reminiscent of stories for present-day veterans coping with the after-effects of agent orange, or brain damage from the concussive impacts of IEDs, etc.

The last bit to the story? There was an official inquiry. The investigators found that the ship’s boilers exploded due to the faulty repair to the leaky boiler, as well as careening caused by overloading, with contributions from other causes. In present-day eyes, it would seem there was plenty of malfeasance to go around. The captain had taken shortcuts with the repairs. Union officers charged with signing off on the repairs did so without qualm. But in the event, everyone was exonerated.

Which brings us back to the question…why has this disaster gone largely unremarked and unremembered? Was it because the victims were nameless, while those on the Titanic included many of the rich and famous? Was it because the Titanic was notoriously seen as “unsinkable,” so that the disaster has come to be linked with hubris? My wife suggested this morning that the Sultana casualties occurred against a backdrop of Civil War battlefield losses (600,000 over the four-year span… as many as 10,000 in individual battles) …is that the reason?

Your thoughts are welcome.

In the meantime, let’s all take time to honor the memory of those poor souls who fought to preserve the Union we enjoy today…and gave their lives at the very moment they thought the worst was over.



[1] Want to read more than a Wikipedia article? How about a book? Try Alan Huffman’s Sultana (Collins, 2009).

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