On the morning of April 27th, 1865, just a few weeks after the end of the Civil War and the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, the worst maritime disaster in American history occurred, right here in Arkansas waters.
The side-wheel steamship Sultana
, shown above, exploded and burned on the Mississippi River, just a few miles upstream from Memphis, TN. The burning hulk drifted to the Arkansas side of the river, finally sinking near Mound City, Arkansas before dawn.
Approximately 1,800 men were killed.
Most of the men killed were Union soldiers just released from Confederate Prisoner of War Camps including Cahaba and the infamous Andersonville prison.
exploded, many men were forced into the cold waters of the Mississippi, which was swollen with with spring flood waters. Many drowned, while hypothermia claimed others. All but two of Sultana
's officers, including her Captain, were killed.
An exact toll can never be determined, because the official records were known to be incomplete (for example, a number of dead men were identified, but were not on the passenger list). Many bodies were never recovered at all. A number of victims were buried in mass graves in the Memphis area.
Only a single photograph of Sultana
is known to exist. It was taken at Helena, Arkansas by T.W. Banks and clearly shows the severe crowding of the decks.
Because this disaster took place so soon after the end of the Civil War and just days after the assassination of President Lincoln (and the day after John Wilkes Booth and co-conspirator David Herold were finally captured), it was largely overshadowed by the greater tragedies the nation had faced.
Several books have been written about Sultana's loss. One, Loss of the Sultana and Reminiscences of Survivors
, was originally published in 1892 and is available on Google Books
There is also an online, searchable database of Sultana passengers
Top illustration - a drawing from Harper's Weekly
, originally published in the May 20th, 1865 issue.
Bottom illustration - Library of Congress