The Last Voyage of the Sultana
By Morgan Gates
An anniversary of a great American disaster quietly passed recently, no flags flew at half-mast because of it, no moments of silence were observed, no orator solemnly intoned the names of the lost, and I doubt that any of the national media outlets even mentioned it. Don’t feel too bad, for few people of the era in which it happened knew much about it either! In fact, if I asked you to name three or four historic American disasters just off the top of your head, chances are it wouldn't be on your list even today. Just for fun let's try it… 9/11, The Challenger, Pearl Harbor Day, The Hindenburg maybe even The Titanic … bet you didn’t list the Sultana!
One hundred fifty-three years ago the steamboat Sultana exploded and burned in the middle of the flood-swollen Mississippi River in the middle of the night. To this day nobody is quite sure how many people died that night, but the estimates range between 1192 to 1547, the higher total would be more than perished aboard The Titanic 48 years later. To add injury to insult most of the victims were recently released POW on their way home after release. Well, what does this have to do with Vicksburg you ask? The Sultana had begun its fateful journey In Vicksburg only a few days before. The fate of the Sultana and Vicksburg it seems, were inextricably linked in more ways than one, however.
The City of Vicksburg, the key to regaining control of the Mississippi River, had resisted the best efforts of both the Union Navy and Army for over a year and finally fell to the second longest siege in U.S. Military History on July 4th, 1863. The Confederate Commander was brought to negotiation by 47 days of privation and near continual bombardment as terms of surrender he demanded parole for his beleaguered men. Grant who had earned the nickname Unconditional Surrender Grant at Fort Donelson initially refused, to which his opponent replied, “You will bury many more of your men before I unconditionally surrender Vicksburg!” Grant, who likely was just “negotiating from a position of strength” realized the impracticality of processing the tremendous Vicksburg garrison into POW camps relented and allowed the parole*. Still, he must have questioned this decision especially after he discovered that many of the same men who he had paroled at Vicksburg were captured again at Chattanooga. On April 17th, 1864 Grant, now the chief Union General, ended all parole! Neither side was prepared for the vast influx of POW that ensued, but the South was in especially dire straights for by this time in the war they were having trouble feeding their own people. The hastily constructed Andersonville Prison in Georgia was an especially nightmarish combination of overcrowding, poor sanitation, and exposure. By the spring of 1865 a limited amount of parole had resumed and even before the War was officially over the South had started paroling prisoners at Andersonville and Cahaba to Federal authorities at Vicksburg. A parole camp was established just outside Vicksburg, and emaciated walking scarecrows that had been prisoners were housed and cared for until transportation north could be arranged.
Enter the Sultana! The steamboat had been headed down river spreading the news of Lincoln's assassination along with its regular passenger and freight duties. On a stopover at Vicksburg the federal quartermaster offered the financially strapped captain a deal he could not afford to turn down, on his upriver leg he would load 1400 former POW aboard the Sultana for the princely sum of $5 per soldier and $10 per officer for a small kickback! The Sultana had been designed to house only 376, but Wartime exigences had caused such cautions to be dispensed with before. Upon her return trip, one of the Sultana's four boilers sprang a leak a potentially deadly problem, but a proper repair at Vicksburg would have meant the Captain would have missed this financial windfall, so he opted for a quick patch up job instead. The next day, not 1400 but almost 2000 former POW were loaded aboard the Sultana. The doomed ship backed away from the docks at Vicksburg on the night of April 24th with 2, 125 people aboard and heading upriver fighting a strong spring floodwater swollen current. At about 2 a.m. on the night of April 27th, the boilers exploded in mid-river the loss of life that night was perhaps the greatest maritime disaster in American history! But coming on the heels of the assassination of Lincoln and the unimaginable losses of the bloodiest war in American history this tragedy hardly stirred a ripple in the peoples conscious, for America had absorbed about all the bad news it could at that time, and few people know about this tragic incident even today. But you do now dear reader. Until next time, never forget the past for it is the ladder to tomorrow!
* Lacking a means for dealing with large numbers of captured troops early in the war, the U.S. and Confederate governments relied on the traditional European system of parole and exchange of prisoners. The terms called for prisoners to give their word not to take up arms against their captors until they were formally exchanged for an enemy captive of equal rank. Parole was supposed to take place within 10 days of capture. Generally, it was granted within a few days, especially after a major battle where thousands of troops were involved. Sometimes parolees went home to await notice of their exchange; sometimes they waited near their commands until the paperwork was processed. (civilwarhome.com)