All Episodes

April 27, 2024 21 mins

This 2014 episode covers the Sultana, which sank the day after John Wilkes Booth was captured and killed for the murder of Abraham Lincoln So the maritime tragedy didn't make headline news. 

See for privacy information.

Mark as Played

Episode Transcript

Available transcripts are automatically generated. Complete accuracy is not guaranteed.
Speaker 1 (00:02):
Happy Saturday. On April twenty seventh, eighteen sixty five, the
Sultana exploded and sank on the Mississippi River. So that
was one hundred and fifty nine years ago today, and
it was the deadliest maritime disaster in US history. This
episode originally came out on June eleventh, twenty fourteen. And
please excuse how we said, kro Illinois, Welcome to Stuff

you missed in History Class, a production of iHeartRadio. Hello,
and welcome to the podcast. I'm Holly Frye and I'm
Tracy V. Wilson, and it is time for another maritime
disaster installment, which I feel slightly odd saying that makes

listeners happy, But many people really love maritime disaster stories,
so it's a big draw for some reason. It is.
It's fascinating. People are drawn to the sea, into seagoing vessels,
and you know there's a certain romance to all of that,
and these are always fascinating because you know, usually the
wreckage sinks and there's an ongoing mystery that kind of
draws people in. I think this one not so much mystery,

but a little bit. We'll get to that towards the end.
And this particular disaster that we're talking about today is
unique in a number of ways. One is that it
took place on a river rather than out at open sea.
Another is that it was likely caused by corruption more
than anything else. The really sad part of it was
that it caused the death of many, many soldiers, even

though it was not part of a battle. And it actually,
even though it was horrific, really got lost in the
shuffle of a very busy news cycle and a certain
degree of numbness that had taken place because the public
had at this point developed over exposure to stories of
death and high numbers of deceased, and so this really

wasn't talked about very much at all, even though it
ranks as the worst maritime disaster in US history. And
so to give you context for why this horrific event
may have gotten lost in the shuffle in terms of
public knowledge, it took place in April of eighteen sixty five,
which was an incredibly important month in US history. On
the ninth of April, General Robert E. Lee surrendered at

Appomatox Courthouse, and on April fourteenth, President Abraham Lincoln was
assassinated as he watched a staging of our American cousin
at Ford's Theater. On April twenty sixth, John Wilkes Booth,
who had assassinated the president, was captured and killed. So
in that context is maybe not so surprising that a
steamboat sinking on April twenty seventh, which is the day

after all of the John Wilkes Booth stuff happened, didn't
make headline news, but it was nonetheless a huge tragedy.
The Sultana was built at the John Lithebury Shipyard in Cincinnati, Ohio.
It's a side wheel steamboat and it was about two
hundred and sixty feet long and forty two feet wide.
The ship was legally cleared to carry up to three

hundred and seventy six passengers with a crew of eighty five,
and the Sultana was built as a really impressive ship
for the time. Her safety equipment, in particular was cutting edge,
including a full complement of the latest and greatest technology
available at the time. The boilers had safety gauges, there
were multiple pumps to fight fire, and there were more

than three hundred feet of fire hose on board, as
well as dedicated buckets and axes for fire fighting. On
February third, eighteen sixty three, the Sultana was launched from Cincinnati,
Ohio to begin her career along the Lower Mississippi. She
primarily ran from Saint Louis to New Orleans and back.
And while the Sultana was intended to be used in

the cotton trade, for the years from eighteen sixty three
to eighteen sixty five, the US War Department often commissioned
the steamer as a cargo and troop transport for Civil
War needs. As the war came to an end, many
Union soldiers who had been prisoners of war were released.
Soldiers coming from prison camps at Cahaba and Alabama and

Andersonville and Georgia were sent to Vicksburg, Mississippi to await
transport to go north. And because the government was flooded
with all of these soldiers that were trying to get
back home as the war was wrapping up, the government
actually offered steamships five dollars ahead if they would carry
troops back home, and for most of them, they went

up to Cairo, Illinois and then routed to wherever their
personal home was from there and for a comparison, that
amount five dollars per head is estimated. In one estimate,
I saw at around sixty five dollars per person today.
On April twenty first, eighteen sixty five, the Sultana departed
from New Orleans. Captain James cass Mason was at the

helm and the ship carried more than one hundred passengers
in a cargo of livestock. So the Sultana made a
stop at Vicksburg, Mississippi, to take on recently released Union
POWs and to perform repairs. And this stop was basically
riddled with bad decisions that would seal the fate of
the Sultan and its passengers. The ship's engineers had identified

a problem with one of its boilers, but to replace
the boiler was going to take several days, and those
were days during which all these Union soldiers, which were
so lucrative to have on board, would instead go home
on other vessels. So, instead of losing potential cash, the
decision was made that they would patch the boiler quickly,

which would only take about a day, instead of installing
a whole new replacement boiler. Then there was the matter
of loading all the troops on board. At five dollars
a man, it was really lucrative to take as many
POW's as possible, and kickbacks of as much as a
dollar and fifteen cents a person were being paid to
military officers in charge of troop loading. This was so

they would sort of look the other way while the
boats were loaded way beyond capacity. And when it comes
to ignoring capacity limits, this particular voyage comes with some
downright shot numbers like I am not kidding, brace yourselves.
So we talked about earlier how the Sultana was legally

certified to carry a little less than four hundred people,
fewer than four hundred people. More than two thousand, yes,
two thousand soldiers were loaded on board while the captain
and army officials lined their pockets with all of this money.
So in the end the ship was at more than
six times normal capacity. Many of the men could barely

find a place to stand, let alone sit or lie down.
The top deck, which was known as the hurricane deck,
as well as the second deck and the bottom main deck,
were all completely packed with men who crushed onto the ship.

They were all eager to get home after the time
they had spent in battle and some of them in
prison camps. Yeah, at this point many people will ask.
You'll see sometimes in the literature, and it sometimes comes
up of like, why would all of these men agree
to get on this ship if it's clearly so dangerous
and horrible. They were POW's. They just wanted to get
home and end the horrible things that they had been through,

and so there were so many of them that the
hurricane deck began to sag really badly from the weight
of all of the men, and it actually had to
be buttressed with stanchions to prevent a cave in. After
assuring one of the army officers that the ship had
carried similar loads before, Captain Mason left Vicksburg at nine
pm on April twenty fourth, but it had one more

stop to make before it moved on toward Cairo, Illinois.
So on April twenty six, the Sultana docked at Memphis
to pick up coal for the rest of its journey,
and some accounts kind of hint that there may have
been additional repairs to the damage boiler, like they may
have put another metal plate over problematic areas, but just

the same they loaded with coal. They may or may
not have done those repairs, and sometime between midnight and
one am on the twenty twenty seventh, the Sultana left
port at Memphis and continued north. It did not get
very far. In addition to the heavy load that the
Sultana carried, the journey was slowed by rushing downstream waters
of the Mississippi because melting snow had actually led to

the river flooding in certain areas. Around two am, the
boiler that had been repaired instead of being replaced, gave
out and exploded, and shortly afterward two of the remaining
three boilers also blew, so a really aggressive fire broke out.
Within minutes of the explosions, the two smokestacks were completely

compromised and they fell onto the hurricane deck. Many men
were killed immediately in the collapse, and those that survived
jumped from the ship and panic. There have been some
interesting writeups that I've seen in my research that kind
of suggests that people should have tried to fight the
fire rather than jumping, But one, it's hard to know
if that would have done any good because this is

pretty catastrophic at that point. And two, you had to
take into consideration the fact that the people that were
not crushed by the smokestacks or catapulted from the vessel
in the explosion, were often suffering from severe burns and
scalding from the steam and fire. Well, on top of
the whole question of whether they should have fought the fire,
there's the fact where if people are crushed onto the

decks so hard that they can't even move, how could
they reasonably try to fight a fire? Right? Well, most
of the people are alluding to the people that were
not crushed that jumped. Oh, I see, I can't say
that I would behave any differently in a situation like that.
I mean, I think your survival instinct just kicks in
and you're like, I got to get out of here.
This is not a safe place. Right. So the fire

spread really rapidly toward the stern, which forced more people
to jump overboard, and the river was quickly filled with
bodies and with jumpers who were barely clinging to life.
A lot of these men had just been released from
prison camp, and so they were incredibly weak to begin with.
Some of them were sick. They were swimming in the
current and trying to t water and trying to hang

on to debris just to float, and all of these
things quickly depleted their energy. This is also a time
when people didn't generally just learn how to swim when
they were children. So a lot of people in the
water were, you know, in periled just for not knowing
how to keep themselves afloat. Yeah, it's not like today
when you grow up and you go to the pool

in the summer and you take swimming lessons, like it
was not uncommon for people have no idea how to
swim at this point. Uh. And in addition to these
people that were in the water being physically taxed by
the exertion, the water was extremely cold. We mentioned earlier
that you know, a lot of the heavy water was
due to the fact that snow was melting, snow and
ice was melting, and water was coming outstream, and that

water was super cold. So hypothermia claimed many lives as well.
Some survivors clung to some of the livestock animals that
had been killed in the blast. There's one survival story
that involves a man who allegedly floated for ten miles
down the Mississippi on a deceased mule. Official reports list
one thousand, five hundred and forty seven deaths, although most

historians estimate now that it's closer to eighteen hundred men
who were killed. We don't know the exact number of
lives claimed by the tragedy because so many men were
herded onto the ship at Vicksburg. In the end, the
explosion of the Sultana's boilers and the ensuing panic killed
close to the same number of Union troops as were
lost at the Battle of Shiloh. The remnants of the

Sultana drifted downriver before sinking to the bottom of the
Mississippi River near Memphis. Bodies washed up for days, and
some even as late as a month later along the
banks of the Mississippi. News of the tragedy first broke
when a young man drifted onto the banks of the
river in Memphis and told centuries what had happened. This

information was quickly relayed and officials scrambled to try to
mount a rescue effort. The SS Bostonia two was the
first rescue vessel on the scene, and it arrived really
quite quickly. So remember this happened at two am. The
Bostonia arrived there at three am. The SS Arkansas, the
SS jerry Lynde, the SS Essex, and the Navy gunboat

USS Tyler also joined in the rescue effort. The USS
Tyler was manned almost exclusively by volunteer crew that had
to be mobilized really rapidly from Memphis because the regular
crew that would normally man the ship had already been discharged. Again,
we're coming to the end of the war, and everybody's
kind of shuffling home. More than a week after the tragedy,

on May fourth, the Tiffan, Ohio paper reported the incident
as follows. The scene following the explosion was terrible and
heartrending in the extreme. Hundreds of people were blown into
the air and descending into the water, some dead, some
with broken limbs, some scalded. Were born under by the
restless current of the Great River, never to rise again.

The survivors represent the screams as agonizing beyond precedent. Some
clung to frail pieces of the wreck, as drowning men
cling to straws, and sustained themselves for a few moments,
but finally became exhausted and sunk. Only the best of swimmers,
aided by fragments of the wreck, were enabled to reach
the woods and take refuge until rescued. By boats sent

from the landing to their assistance. There were about fifteen
women and children aboard, and as near as can be ascertained,
not more than two or three had been found at
the hour when this account was written. So, Tracy, before
we talk a little bit about the investigation that followed
this tragedy, do you want to just take a quick
word from our sponsor. Let's do okay, and now we

will get back to civil war discussion or post civil
war discussion, and cover kind of what happened in the
aftermath of all of this. So General C. Washburn, who
was officer at Memphis, opened an investigation into the Sultana's
explosion and sinking almost immediately after being informed of what
had taken place. Special Order one nine, which was issued

by Washburn, established a military commission to investigate the incident,
and they moved really quickly. They did not drag their feet.
They began taking testimony at eleven thirty am on April
twenty seventh, so just nine and a half hours after
this had all happened. Several days later, Secretary of War
Edwin M. Stanton issued Special Order one ninety five to

start a separate investigation, and there was a rumor that
a Confederate bomb had been aboard the ship, but in
the end, these military investigations determined that the mismanagement of
the boilers and the overcrowding of the ship were the
real causes. Even so, the alternate possibility that sabotage was

involved continues to be examined and debated due to a
quote secret revealed in eighteen eighty eight. How this information
came to light as a little nebulous, as it's reported
in two different ways, and one Confederate messenger, Robert Louden,
claimed on his deathbed that he had in fact sunk
the Sultana with a coal torpedo. Other accounts say that

an acquaintance of his revealed the information shortly after he died. Yeah,
and Louden is also often referenced as a basically a
spy for the Confederates, And I would say that more
accounts seemed to document that his friend William Streeter was
actually the one that revealed this information. But just so

you understand how this could have worked, a coal torpedo
was basically a metal casing that would be filled with
gunpowder and then it would be rolled in wax and
coal dust, so it could basically masquerade as a lump
of coal and be tossed into a regular coal bin
and nobody would notice it. The incendiary would then be
shoveled into a boiler with the rest of the coal
in the course of regular travel for a steamship, and

this would cause the boiler to explode once it was heated.
Of course, naturally, there's no definitive evidence on this alternate version,
so it's really unlikely we'll ever know for certain whether
sabotage was involved. And as for the follow up to
the official investigation, the ship's captain was killed in the incident,
and the only charges that were filed were against a

Federal Army officer, Captain Frederick Speed, and he had basically
been one of the people that took the dollar fifteen
in kickbacks to allow the overloading of troops onto the
Sultana at Vicksburg. On January ninth, eighteen sixty six. His
court martial began in Vicksburg, and in the January thirty,
first night, eighteen sixty six edition of The Daily Empire,

which was a newspaper out of Dayton, Ohio, an article
ran entitled heavy charge Oney one hundred and ten murders.
In this article detailed Captain Speed's court martial trial. The
article states, quote, it is alleged that in April last
he chartered the steamer Sultana for private speculative purposes, placing
one thousand, eight hundred eighty six paroled prisoners on board,

and thus did overload the said steamer Sultana, whose legal
carrying capacity was three hundred seventy six passengers. The article
goes on to describe the accident, quote, about seven miles
above Memphis, Tennessee, was destroyed by an explosion of her
boiler or boilers, and by fire, and thereupon a large
number to it one thousand, one hundred ten or thereabouts

of the paroled prisoners on board, whose names are unknown,
lost their lives by drowning, scalding, and burning. And that
the one thousand, one hundred ten paroled prisoners would not
have so lost their lives but for the misconduct of
the said Captain Speed and the overloading said steamer Sultana.
And on June ninth of eighteen sixty six, so this

was more than a year after the tragedy took place,
Captain Speed was indeed found guilty of neglect and he
was dismissed from the army. However, aside from being disgraced
and being booted from the service, there wasn't a whole
lot in the way of punishment. When Brigadier General Joseph Holt,
who was Judge Advocate General of the US Army, when

he received the case file and the court martial findings,
he actually dismissed the charges against Speed and the case
was closed on September first of eighteen sixty six. And
there's some speculation that really it was a case where
he came to understand that this was not an uncommon thing,
that many other officers did similar things and let ships

be overloaded, and he didn't want this one man to
become sort of the example to be made of the situation,
even though clearly there was a lot of horrible aftermath
of his poor decision making. While the incident was reported
in the Ohio newspapers because of the large number of
Ohio residents on board, and in the Saint Louis papers

because that was the sultana's home port, of the rest
of the country was so engaged with the news surrounding
President Lincoln's assassination in the end of the war that
the event was barely noted in a lot of papers.
It was several pages in before the incident was even mentioned.
And the Mississippi River has actually shifted course throughout the years,

as most people know. If you don't know, it is
actually about two miles east now of where it ran
by Memphis in eighteen sixty five, so it's really shifted
quite a bit. And in nineteen eighty two an archaeological
expedition located what is believed to be deck planks and
timbers from the Sultana, and these artifacts were actually found

under a soybean field on the Arkansas side of the river,
so where it would have sunk. But then the river
has since shifted over quite a bit. While the Titanic
disaster was also incredibly tragic, unlike the Sultana, it has
a cemented place in history and its story is really
widely known. But for comparison, the Sultana was left than

half the size of the Titanic and it lost between
seventeen hundred and eighteen hundred passengers compared to the Titanic's
oney five hundred and seventeen deceased. Both of these are,
of course terrible, but it's sad that the Sultana tragedy
was eclipsed by other news at the time and largely forgotten. Yeah,
it really did kind of not get a fair shake

in terms of being reported. There are many theories about
why that go beyond the sort of heavy news cycle
that was going on. Some people have kind of hinted
that perhaps because the Titanic had a lot of rich
and famous people on it, that was a more sensational
story to report and that kind of seated it as
a historical marker, whereas with this it was unfortunate and

it was a lot of Union troops, but we didn't
even know many of their names. Truly sad, and I
am very sad that it kind of gets left out
of the story a lot of the time. Thanks so
much for joining us on this Saturday. Since this episode
is out of the archive, if you heard an email

address or a Facebook RL or something similar over the
course of the show, that could be obsolete now. Our
current email address is History Podcast at iHeartRadio dot com.
You can find us all over social media at misst Dhistory,
and you can subscribe to our show on Apple Podcasts,
Google podcasts, the iHeartRadio app, and wherever else you listen

to podcasts. Stuff you Missed in History Class is a
production of iHeartRadio. For more podcasts from iHeartRadio, visit the
iHeartRadio app, Apple podcasts, or wherever you listen to your
favorite shows.

Stuff You Missed in History Class News

Advertise With Us

Follow Us On

Hosts And Creators

Tracy V. Wilson

Tracy V. Wilson

Holly Frey

Holly Frey

Show Links


Popular Podcasts

Stuff You Should Know

Stuff You Should Know

If you've ever wanted to know about champagne, satanism, the Stonewall Uprising, chaos theory, LSD, El Nino, true crime and Rosa Parks, then look no further. Josh and Chuck have you covered.

The Nikki Glaser Podcast

The Nikki Glaser Podcast

Every week comedian and infamous roaster Nikki Glaser provides a fun, fast-paced, and brutally honest look into current pop-culture and her own personal life.

Music, radio and podcasts, all free. Listen online or download the iHeart App.


© 2024 iHeartMedia, Inc.