Friday, April 20, 2012

Remember the Sultana

It's one of the most deadly steamboat disasters of all time, yet there are few people today who could tell you about it.  While everyone knows about the Titanic or the Lusitania, who ever heard about the Sultana?  It's a very interesting, albeit tragic, story that must be shared and expounded.

The Sultana was an old paddlewheel Riverboat on the Mississippi back in 1865.  The Civil War had just ended, and Union POW's were being released by the thousands from Confederate prison camps.  Many of these men were sick and starved, many barely able to walk in their weakened state.  The victorious Union Army now had the lingering job of returning these men to their homes in the North.

On April 24, 1865, the Steamboat Sultana stopped at Vicksburg, Mississippi, where a swarm of former Union Prisoners of War were brought aboard.  We're talking somewhere around 2,000 of them, and the Sultana was only legally rated to carry 376 people, crew included!  Two additional companies of armed Union soldiers also boarded, bringing the total compliment upwards of 2,300.  You do the math; that boat was overloaded!  The thing was literally packed to the gunnels, standing room only.

The Sultana photographed from Helena, Arkansas
the day before its destruction.

In addition to being over-capacity, the ship was having boiler trouble, which was apparent as early as Vicksburg.  The crew did what they could to patch it, but there was only so much they could do.  If that wasn't bad enough, the river was at flood stage, with a harsher current than normal, so the overloaded steamship with a leaky boiler had to be pushed to the limit going up-stream.  Still, they made it to Memphis, Tennessee by April 26, where they stopped to unload cargo.  While at Memphis, a bunch of soldiers got off to see the sights, and a few failed to get back to the ship before it pulled out around midnight—lucky bastards.

The Sultana chugged upstream for two hours, but had only gone a few miles upstream when the boiler exploded.  The sound of the explosion and the giant plume of flame could be witnessed from miles away.  The ship was blown half-apart, and hundreds of men were thrown into the chilly rushing water of the Mississippi River.  As the ship continued to drift and burn, many more men joined them in the water, many of whom were too weak to swim, or just didn't know how.  Hundreds of others burned aboard the ship, many of them trapped below decks.

About 600 people were rescued from the river, but around 200 of them died from burns and exposure, leaving approximately 400 survivors.  There is no way to know the exact number of dead, for the muster rolls were not taken prior to the soldiers boarding the ship (as was standard protocol).  Instead, in a bureaucratic snafu, the soldiers were to be counted on board, so any list of soldiers aboard the Sultana went down with the ship.  Estimates peg the number of victims somewhere around 1,600, but possibly as high as 1,900.

At the time of the disaster, there was little said of it.  The country was going through a lot, trying to rebuild the South and coping with Lincoln's assassination, and the military wasn't eager to brag about this horrendous tragedy.  Besides, the victims were mostly just Midwestern men that none of the Eastern papers cared about, so few people bothered to take notice.

Today, 147 years later, we should all take a minute to acknowledge this disaster, and the brave soldiers who died, just trying to get home!  These men fought bravely for their country, and they went through hell in prison.  They deserved better than to burn or drown on the ship that was supposed to take them back to their families.  It's just not right.

I'm tempted to write a story about this little-known incident in history (perhaps something in the West of the Warlock universe) to help bring this to more people's attention.  This would also make a really poignant scene in a movie, perhaps adding some flavorful back-story to a period character.  There are some very compelling possibilities to explore here, and it's time someone did.

Spread the word, and remember The Sultana!

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