Death on the River

By Noah Andre Trudeau

A Situation Ripe for Corruption

There was nothing neat or clean about the ending of the American Civil War. As Confederate forces folded their flags in surrender, lines of authority were broken, leaving scattered power vacuums like blackouts after an ice storm. Within the Confederacy, east-west communications became spotty at best. The Union-held fortress of Vicksburg, Mississippi, had become the western center for prisoner exchange prior to the breakup. Thousands of captive Federal soldiers had been moved from the hellholes of Andersonville, Georgia, and Cahaba, Alabama, to a holding area known as Camp Fisk, about four miles east of town. Many were in a bad way malnourished, afflicted with camp fevers, emotionally damaged by the cruelties they had experienced. They were supposed to wait at Camp Fisk to be exchanged for an equal number of Confederate soldiers.

By April it was clear that the system was breaking down. More Federal soldiers were accumulating at Camp Fisk than could be swapped for Rebels on a one-for-one basis. At last a message made it through the tattered Southern communications network from the Confederate official in change of prisoner exchange that authorized the release of Union prisoners without a corresponding match in place, though rolls were to be maintained toward a future accounting.

What had been an orderly and measured exchange arrangement changed overnight into a hastily improvised operation intended to quickly move the unfortunates to northern areas for better care. To facilitate this process the U.S. Government offered transportation payments to steamboat captains of $5 per enlisted man and $10 per officer for conveying the former POWs. And with no real controls over safety and comfort issues, the river merchants knew they would be able to pack the former prisoners aboard without regard to peacetime load limits and reap windfall profits. It was a situation ripe for corruption.

Several key players in the unfolding tragedy had suspiciously clouded resum e s. The Sultana 's master and part-owner, Captain J. Cass Mason, was generally respected by his peers but also considered to be reckless. He already had one boat confiscated from him for hauling Confederate contraband and was in serious financial trouble at war's end. Vicksburg's chief quartermaster, Colonel Reuben B. Hatch, was well plugged into the Illinois political power grid and seemingly immune from legal action. At the start of the conflict he had been caught with his hand in the till (paying a low price for lumber supplies, charging the government a high price, and pocketing the difference), but friends in important places (including Abraham Lincoln) cleared him of wrongdoing. In early 1865 a competency board that examined Hatch found him "totally unfit" to handle the task of quartermaster. 1 Yet that was his job title at Vicksburg in April 1865.

The officer commanding the Department of Mississippi, headquartered in Vicksburg, sported a name rich with military associations: Major General Napoleon Jackson Tecumseh Dana. A West Point graduate and a Mexican War veteran, Dana bore scars from wounds received in that conflict and at Antietam in 1862. The fact that his return to duty in July 1863 had him posted to a variety of largely administrative assignments suggests that his warrior days were past. Running day-to-day operations at Vicksburg was Brigadier General Morgan L. Smith, a civilian officer whose fine war record included prominent roles at Shiloh, Vicksburg, Chattanooga, and Atlanta. Problems with a wound received at Chickasaw Bluffs led to the end of Smith's active field service, and he was sent to Vicksburg to mark time. Both senior officers would fail to exercise sufficient oversight for the prisoner transfers, but after the tragedy they managed the investigations to ensure that no blame fell on them.

There were others involved whose only impulse was to do the right thing. Captain Frederick Speed was a staff officer at Vicksburg eager to facilitate the rapid shipment of the suddenly freed POWs. The officer properly charged with managing the prisoner movement happened to be away from the post consulting with superiors when the Confederate commissioner's message came through. Speed volunteered to step in. His intentions throughout were honorable, but the situation soon spun out of his control causing the honest officer to make some hasty decisions with awful consequences.

On 13 April 1865, Speed took over the processing of the ex-POWs. Even with everyone sharing a sense of urgency, necessary administrative steps required time, especially drawing up accurate rolls to ensure that the soldiers were properly logged as they passed through the system. As fast as a sizable group of men were organized (generally sorted by state unit to simplify their movement), Speed turned them over to the Quartermaster Department (Colonel Hatch's domain) for transportation.

At first the system seemed to work. The steamboat Henry Ames departed Vicksburg on 22 April carrying 1,315 soldiers bound for the Benton Barracks in St. Louis. The next day the Olive Branch left for the same point with 619 liberated prisoners. Friction, however, arose between the man sending the Soldiers from Camp Fisk and those charged with placing them aboard transports. Captain Speed became convinced that one quartermaster officer solicited a bribe to ensure a full load on the Oliver Branch and personally complained to General Dana. Dana tabled the matter until after the camp had been cleared, but the incident suggests a poisonous atmosphere among those supposed to be helping return the prisoners to their homes. It was about 1800 on the 22nd when the Sultana docked at Vicksburg.

Efficient but Dangerous

Launched on 3 January 1863, the Sultana was the fifth river steamboat to bear the name. Built for speed and capacity, the vessel measured 260 feet long, was 39 feet wide at the base, 42 feet wide at the beam, displaced 719 tons, and drew just 7 feet of water. Her two side-mounted paddlewheels were driven by four tubular, or fire-tube, boilers. Introduced in 1848, they were capable of generating twice as much steam per fuel load as conventional flue boilers. Each fire-tube boiler was 18 feet long and 46 inches in diameter and contained 24 five-inch flues, tubes that ran from the firebox to the chimney.

The economic advantages came with a safety tradeoff. The water levels in a tubular system had to be carefully maintained at all times. The many flues clogged easily, and the sediment and mineral buildup on the tubes and boiler sides, especially heavy when the river water used in the system carried lots of sediment, was difficult to scrape off. Even the slightest dip in water level could cause hot spots leading to metal fatigue, greatly increasing the risk of an explosion. For a classic "wedding cake" design steamboat, constructed of layers of highly flammable lightweight wood covered with paint and varnish, the likelihood was that any such incident would be catastrophic.

As the Sultana tied up at the Vicksburg wharf she had another problem. A small crack had developed in one of her boilers, forcing the engineer to lower the pressure in the system, which in turn noticeably retarded the craft's speed. A local mechanic reckoned that nothing less than a thorough refitting would do. This would take days to complete and by then the lucrative supply of Soldier/prisoners requiring transportation would have dried up. It took some arm-twisting by Captain Mason and his chief engineer, but against his better judgment the mechanic agreed to make a temporary repair a patch to be riveted over the cracked boiler plate.

Packing the Soldiers Aboard

In the quartermaster's offices, Captain Mason was letting everyone know in no uncertain terms that he expected a full load of parolees. He reminded all present that his boat belonged to a transport cooperative that enjoyed a contract with the government for just such services. (Neither the Henry Ames nor the Olive Branch was part of this deal.) With Mason demanding as many men as his boat could carry as soon as possible, pressure was put on Captain Speed to expedite clearing out Camp Fisk. For their part, the Soldiers were eager to leave and could not care less if the appropriate forms were completed.

The officer properly in charge of drawing the rolls returned at this time but refrained from superseding Speed. He did suggest that the lists could be made up at the boarding platform rather than in the camp. Speed agreed to this, although he likely underestimated how difficult it would be to maintain an accurate accounting in the chaotic conditions at the boats.

The released Federal prisoners were moved from Camp Fisk to Vicksburg by train, with each load supposed to carry approximately 600 men. The limited number of trains available, however, led to an understandable tendency to pack even more into the cars nearly 800 per load. Hauling the men intended for the Sultana required three trips, but in the confusion Speed registered only two. Throughout this hectic day he continued to believe that the steamboat's load was roughly 1,300 (same as carried by the Henry Ames ), when the actual figure was much greater.

Because they were still being sorted by state unit at the camp, the men who tramped aboard the Sultana hailed mostly from Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee. The first to reach the boat could hear banging from below as repairs were completed on the cracked boiler. A Buckeye private named William Boor convinced his friends to find a spot away from the power plant, warning that if it did explode they would "go higher than a kite." 2 Open space disappeared as the various decks became congested, and still the men came, leading Ohio Sergeant William Fies to mutter that they were being loaded "more like so many cattle than men," while Corporal Erastus Winters likened their experience to "something like a flock of sheep or a drove of hogs." 3 Such was the extra weight that the hurricane deck began to sag and had to be braced with temporary stanchions.

A nearby noncontract steamboat named the Pauline Carroll remained empty. Evidence suggests that one of Colonel Hatch's officers, Lieutenant William Tillinghast, stood to make money if some of those coming from Camp Fisk could be diverted to the Carroll. Still believing that the 1,300 Soldiers would all fit reasonably on the Sultana (which had a contract), Speed refused to consider such a transfer when Tillinghast proposed it. This decision not only sealed the fate of hundreds of men, but also implicated Speed when investigations were undertaken to determine why so many were carried by Captain Mason's boat.

The actions of the three senior officers on the scene this day are remarkable for what they did not do. Major General Dana, Brigadier General Smith, and Colonel Hatch neglected to visit the wharf, even though their headquarters were nearby. Afterward, none would be questioned about their failures to supervise the loading process that resulted in so many POWs being placed on board the riverboat.

It was just after 2100, 24 April, when the Sultana pushed away from the dock and nosed into the river current. Exactly how many people were on board will never be known. Official estimates were 1,800, while a careful headcount by present-day historian Gene Eric Salecker totals 2,222, a number that includes 100 paying passengers (men, women, and children), a crew of 85, and 22 guards. Other writers accept a grand figure of 2,300. The Sultana 's legal carrying capacity was 76 cabin and 300 deck passengers. Life-saving equipment as well as amenities were scaled to that number. Still, as the grossly overcrowded vessel pulled away from Vicksburg, the men cheered. They were going home to God's Country, as many of them called it.

Upriver Trip Cut Short

Save for the discomforts of such a large number of people packed into so little space, the first leg of the voyage was trouble free. The early spring air was cool, and the Soldiers (many without any cover) endured a slight, chilling rain. Those in the steamboat's rear section had to jockey for space with the regular cargo of 70 to 100 mules or horses. Stored in the hold of the Sultana were 300,000 pounds of sugar and 90 cases of wine. Captain Mason may have had his money problems, but he was doing just fine on this trip.

When, some 30 hours into the journey, the Sultana made a brief stop in Helena, Arkansas, an enterprising local photographer made an image of the crowded craft. Things got scary when so many Soldiers swarmed to one side to wave at the cameraman that the vessel threatened to capsize. At about 1830 on 26 April, the boat made a scheduled stop in Memphis to discharge the sugar and wine and a few paying customers, including an opera troupe. While she was there several officers from a nearby U.S. gunboat paid a courtesy visit. "Some of the men [on board the Sultana ]," noted one of them, "were too weak to walk without being supported by more fortunate comrades. Others were compelled by sheer weakness to lie on cots or blankets spread upon the decks. . . ." 4 Following a short coaling stop in nearby Hopefield, Arkansas, the Sultana continued northward. (At least one Soldier who had slipped ashore at Memphis and missed the departure was able to hitch a ride out to the steamboat and rejoin his comrades. He would not survive.)

By 0200 on 27 April, the Sultana had eased past a collection of one large and several smaller islands known as Paddy's Hen and Chickens, when, with no warning, first one, then two more of her boilers exploded with a thunderous clap that could be heard seven miles away in Memphis. The force of the blast tore a 45-degree hole from the boat's bowels to her stern. In an instant, shards of the shattered boilers ripped through the passenger throng like shrapnel, while white-hot coal and burning cordwood sprayed across beams and planks that had been shattered into ready kindling.

' All Was Confusion'

The "first thing that I knew or heard was a terrible crash, everything seemed to be falling," recalled a Michigan soldier. "A piece of iron glanced my head," added Kentuckian Simeon Chelf, "and in the excitement I thought the rebels had fired a battery on us." An Ohioan declared: "Not more than three feet from where I was lying was a hole clear through the boat. It seemed as if the explosion of the boilers had torn everything out from top to bottom." 5

Scores died in an instant. Others found themselves buried under flaming debris or blown overboard into the cold, dark river. "Everywhere steam was escaping, women were screaming, soldiers and crew cursing and swearing, horses neighing, mules braying, splinters flying," recorded an Ohio man, Nicholas Karns. 6 Most of the pilot house was gone; the smokestacks shuddered and then toppled, one forward, the other backward. The entire midsection was a mass of flames driven by a stiff wind toward the stern. "I saw many men mangled," added another Buckeye, Peter Roselot, "some with arms and legs broken, others scalded and screaming in their agony." 7

More died within minutes of the explosion. Those not fighting to survive in the water now faced life-or-death decisions. As Ohioan J. S. Cook put it, the choice was "between drowning and burning to death." 8 Weakened deck sections collapsed, crushing or trapping victims. "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," recollected a Tennessee soldier. 9

"All was confusion," attested an Ohio man, William H. Norton, adding that from the lower deck he could see that the "men were jumping into the river by the hundreds." 10 There they fought the flood-swollen Mississippi and each other. "I saw at least twenty drown at once," said Indiana cavalryman Stephen M. Gaston. "As fast as one would feel he was drowning he would clutch at the nearest, and I believe many a bold swimmer was drowned that night who could have saved himself if alone." Tennessean Andrew Perry, clinging to the boat, watched with astonishment as a man and mule battled for a floating piece of the wheelhouse. "The mule would get its front feet on the raft and [the man] . . . would knock it off with a club. It would come again, for several times the mule almost capsized the craft. I don't think I ever saw a more earnest fight. The mule finally gave up or was killed." 11

As long as they were intact, the side paddlewheels acted as jib sails, keeping the stern pointed downwind. But once the fittings burned loose and the wheels broke away, the hapless steamboat pivoted around 180 degrees. Now the blaze reversed course, relentlessly burning toward the bow, where perhaps as many as 500 people huddled. Within minutes all were either burned to death or cast into the water.

The swollen river current scattered the survivors along both sides of the Mississippi and downstream. Some held on to bits of flotsam until they grounded on dry land or were snagged by trees and clambered into the branches. Alerted by the screaming of victims being carried past, boats put out from nearby Mound City, Memphis, and small settlements in between. Some of the rescuers were able to haul in gasping survivors suffering from various stages of hypothermia; others spent frantic, futile minutes trying to locate voices calling for help that grew fainter and then fell silent.

Back near the wreck, several passing steamboats began hauling in survivors, many with broken bones or horrible burns. Among the latter was the engineer on duty when the boilers exploded. He would live long enough to make a deathbed statement about what had happened.

The fire on the Sultana died down enough that scores of survivors clinging to the boat's hull were able to haul themselves back aboard where they fought the lingering flames and tried to ignore the sight of blackened and shriveled bodies. Enough unburned rope was found that, with the help of some survivors riding small boats in the water, the drifting Sultana wreckage was lashed to a clump of trees. The fire never quit, eventually forcing those still on board to take to rafts or clamber into the trees to escape. At last the flames succumbed to the cold river waters that closed over the charred hull. The Sultana sank at approximately 0900 on a bar near Mound City.

All those who would survive the disaster were located within 12 hours of the explosion. Body recovery would stretch into the second week of May, some discovered as far as 120 miles below Memphis. Many were never found, including the steamboat's master, J. Cass Mason.

Between 783 and 786 of the crew and passengers survived. The number of those lost depends on the number calculated to be on board. Contemporary government estimates of those killed range from 1,238 to 1,547. Later recalculations by historians Salecker and Jerry O. Potter suggest a number closer to 1,800. By way of comparison, the fatalities for RMS Titanic numbered 1,517.

The Catastrophe's Aftermath

Three different military commissions would be ordered to investigate the disaster. Each tended to limit its area of authority, and none probed too deeply into the affair; in fact, one commission even appropriated testimony given to another. Just a single officer was brought to trial Captain Frederick Speed, charged with neglect of duty leading to the overcrowding of the Sultana.

Speed pled not guilty. The court-martial that followed was notable for who did not testify. Several major witnesses, including Colonel Hatch, had resigned their commissions by this time and as civilians were able to ignore military subpoenas. Following six months of legal and judicial consideration, Speed was found guilty, but then had his verdict overturned by the U.S. Army's judge advocate general. Ironically, the reverse decision made a point of the fact that while the Sultana might have been overcrowded, she was not overloaded. The number of passengers carried did not cause the vessel to founder; she died when her boilers exploded.

Opinions still differ regarding the cause of that explosion. In 1888 an article appeared in a St. Louis newspaper recounting a conversation with a Confederate saboteur named Robert Loudon who claimed credit for the Sultana disaster. His weapon was an explosive device designed as a lump of coal and slipped aboard during the coaling stop outside Memphis. A wholly circumstantial case can put Loudon on the scene with the means available, but no more than that. (A similarly disguised infernal device, this one a time bomb, was put onto an ammunition barge at City Point, Virginia, in 1864. The resulting explosion nearly killed Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, whose headquarters were nearby.)

The Vicksburg patch job has also been suggested as the cause, although the deathbed testimony of the terribly scalded engineer on duty when the disaster occurred was that there was no loss of pressure in the minutes before the explosion. The most likely scenario points to the tubular boiler itself. Given the unstable nature of the human load on board and the turbulent river flow, it is highly probable that the Sultana careened a good deal. With the engine requiring maximum steam pressure to maintain its headway against the heavy flood current, the need to keep sufficient water levels in the boilers was especially critical. It would not have taken too many cycles of red-hot piping suddenly flushed by cold river water to cause a fatigue rupture in one boiler, which would set off two more.

The Sultana disaster was followed in about a year by two other prominent steamboat explosions on craft using tubular boilers. Insurance companies stopped providing coverage for those power systems, and by 1866 most had been replaced with conventional flue models. Also in the wake of the Sultana tragedy was the organization of the Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company, which helped raise and maintain safety standards a mission it continues to this day.

Although they were largely forgotten by the country, a survivors association was formed (which is still active) and efforts made to erect a monument to the event. No national memorial was ever created, but several more modest commemorative markers do exist. Still, the horrors experienced by those who survived could never be wiped away. "Would to God that I could forever blot from memory and sight the events of that terrible disaster," said Ohioan George Haas in 1888. "But they cling to me like a horrible nightmare, even visiting me in my dreams, as well as in my waking moments." 12

 



1. Jerry O. Potter, The Sultana Tragedy (Gretna, Louisiana: Pelican Publishing Company, 1992), p. 42.

2. Chester D. Berry, Loss of the Sultana and Reminiscences of Survivors (Lansing, Michigan: Darius D. Thorp, 1892), p. 57.

3. Berry, Loss of the Sultana, p. 125; Erastus Winters, In the 50th Ohio Serving Uncle Sam (East Walnut Hills, Ohio: 1905), p. 163.

4. William H.C. Michael, "Explosion of the Sultana," Civil War Sketches and Incidents (Omaha, Nebraska: Commandery of the State of Nebraska, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, 1902), p. 254.

5. Berry, Loss of the Sultana, 88. Noah Andre Trudeau, Out of the Storm (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1994), p. 270.

6. Trudeau, Out of the Storm , p. 272.

7. Berry, Loss of the Sultana, p. 305.

8. Ibid., p. 101.

9. Trudeau, Out of the Storm , p. 273.

10. Berry, Loss of the Sultana, p. 275.

11. Trudeau, Out of the Storm , p. 274.

12. Ibid., p. 276.

Mr. Trudeau is the author of many books about the American Civil War, including Southern Storm: Sherman's March to the Sea (HarperCollins, 2008); Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage (HarperCollins, 2002); Like Men of War: Black Troops in the Civil War, 1862-1865 (Little, Brown and Company, 1998); and Out of the Storm: The End of the Civil War, April-June 1865 (Little, Brown and Company, 1994).

 

 

Mr. Trudeau is the author of many books about the American Civil War, including Southern Storm: Sherman's March to the Sea (HarperCollins, 2008); Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage (HarperCollins, 2002); Like Men of War: Black Troops in the Civil War, 1862-1865 (Little, Brown and Company, 1998); and Out of the Storm: The End of the Civil War, April-June 1865 (Little, Brown and Company, 1994).

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