originally published April 27, 2015 Opinionator, New York Times
As John Wilkes Booth stepped into President Lincoln’s booth at Ford’s Theater on the evening of April 14, 1865, Union prisoners of war were heading home on foot and by rail, free from Andersonville, Cahaba and other prisons. Several thousand men had been brought to a transit camp at Vicksburg, Miss., where they awaited transport along the Mississippi River.
Eleven days later, 2,100 of those soldiers, many sick, many barefoot, boarded the wooden side-wheeler steamboat Sultana. The ship was built to carry 375 passengers; that day it steamed north with 2,427, including civilian men, women and children along with the soldiers.
At 2 a.m., when the ship was just seven miles upriver from Memphis, three of its four boilers exploded. Nearly 1,800 people, mostly Union soldiers, died in what remains the worst maritime disaster in American history – worse, even, than the Titanic – and one of the largest military losses of life in a single day.
Those who were not killed outright by the explosion died in the crush to abandon the ship, or drowned in the river below. The water was still chilly with winter runoff, and many of those who made it into the water died of hypothermia. One survivor, Daniel Allen, testified in 1892:
I pressed toward the bow, passing many wounded sufferers, who piteously begged to be thrown overboard. I saw men, while attempting to escape, pitch down through the hatchway that was full of blue curling flames, or rush wildly from the vessel to death and destruction in the turbid waters below. I clambered upon the hurricane deck and with calmness and self-possession assisted others to escape.”
Many of those who did survive were horribly burned. About 700 made it to a hospital in Memphis, where 200 died of their injuries.
The country was caught up in the celebration over the war’s end and the mourning over Lincoln, and while the disaster made the front pages, it quickly fell from the public’s mind. Hearings were conducted, but few were punished. Only one officer, a captain who had ordered the men onto the overcrowded boat, was found guilty, but his verdict was overturned.
The Sultana itself was lost, and discovered only in 1982, when archaeologists uncovered fragments 30 feet below a soybean field along the banks of the Mississippi – the river having shifted course over the ensuing century.
Alongside Ohio, Tennessee was home to the most passengers. In April 1912, just after the sinking of the Titanic, survivors of the Sultana met in Knoxville, in the state’s mountainous east; four years later, on July 4, they dedicated an impressive monument in Mount Olive Baptist Church Cemetery just outside the city on Maryville Pike. They met each April afterward, until only one veteran showed up in 1930.
And yet the Sultana disaster has been otherwise largely forgotten in American history. Despite the publication of six books and a short docu-drama in recent years, this tragic event has failed to seize the imagination of American readers, even those endlessly fascinated by the war. Ironically, while the infamous Andersonville prison has long attracted public interest, few make the connection that many of the Union survivors of Andersonville perished after all, or survived yet another descent into hell that spring night.
The sinking hasn’t been completely lost to history. In 1892 the author Chester Berry, himself a Sultana survivor, collected testimony from 134 of the 550 remaining survivors in his book “Loss of the Sultana and Reminiscences of Survivors.” And in 1987 a Knoxville attorney named Norman Shaw, despite not being the descendant of a Sultana survivor, started the Association of Sultana Descendants and Friends, whose newsletter is called Sultana Remembered. They have met annually, sometimes numbering as many as 100, in Knoxville, Memphis, Cincinnati and other cities associated with victims and survivors.
Meanwhile, the darkness of that night still hangs, almost 150 years later, over the smoke, the screams and the prayers of the victims and the compassionate cries of the rescuers. Readers may strive to imagine the vast, complicated canvas of folly and agony, and then perhaps to ponder the web of implications, absorb into their consciousness the testimony of the survivors.