Sometimes greed is a greater enemy than an opposing army.
In late April 1865, the American Civil War was over and no soldiers were more eager to return home than released prisoners of war. Thus Camp Fisk, on the Mississippi River near Vicksburg, was a beehive of activity. Camp Fisk had been established for the general exchange of prisoners who had been captured during normal combat operations, and now it was a point of embarkation for Union soldiers going north.
Among the waiting boats was the side-wheeler Sultana, whose arrival had been delayed by when one of its boilers needed repairs. The reason for its presence was money. The Federal government had established a set fee for transporting soldiers: $5 for each enlisted man and $10 for each officer. Of course, for the riverboat captains this was a golden opportunity to cash in. Rumors spread that some boat owners were offering bribes to increase the number of parolees assigned to their boats. The Sultana had been designed to carry 376 passengers and crew. Rolls for 300 had been written, yet men continued to come aboard. When the ship departed on April 24, 1865, it was severely overloaded. One source lists its consignment as 1866 troops, 75 cabin passengers, 85 crew members, 60 horses and mules, and more than 100 hogs. Another says 2100 freed prisoners of war. In any event, movement around the boat was virtually impossible. Cooking was done either with hot water taken directly from the boilers or a small stove on the main deck.
In the early morning hours of April 27 and about an hour after having left Memphis, the boat shuttered from a tremendous boiler explosion. A pillar of orange fire shot into the air and men on the deck were hurled into the air, either landing into scalding water on deck or in the icy waters of the Mississippi. The fire spread rapidly, accelerated by coals from the ruptured furnaces. For many, it was either jump into the frigid waters or be burned alive. Quickly the boat became a floating inferno, burning for about five hours before sinking.
Passing boats commenced rescue operations. Dawn found men in the river clutching anything that would float. They were the lucky ones. The former prisoners of war, weakened by disease and malnutrition, lacked the strength to swim for shore… if they knew how to swim in the first place. Over the next few weeks, bodies were fished out of the Mississippi as far away as 120 miles downstream.
No one knows for sure how many lives were lost. Estimates range from one-third of those on board (surely far too low a figure) to approximately 1,800, with an official total of 1,547. No matter what the real total, it was the greatest ship disaster in U.S. history.
Exactly what caused the explosion? Again, no one knows for sure. Prime suspects are low water levels in the boat’s four boilers, a faulty boiler repair, and (of course) overcrowding.
It is tragically ironic that so many were able to survive the horrors of a Civil War prisoner-of-war camp, only to die on what should have been a routine trip home.
Faust, Patricia L. (editor), “Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War”, New York: Harper Perennial, 1986, pp. 731-732.
Robinson, James I. Jr., “Tenting Tonight: The Soldier’s Life” from The Civil War series, Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, Inc., 1984, p. 134
“SS Sultana“, from Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SS_Sultana