It took more lives than the sinking of the Titanic, but many people today have never heard of this disaster.
And we still don't know exactly why it happened.
What was this secret disaster that was related to the United States Civil War?
It barely made headlines on April 27, 1865, because this disaster took place during April of 1865. So much had already happened in this incredible April, perhaps the most incredible April in the history of the United States. But April, 1865 was not yet done with our country.
The Civil War had effectively ended. Richmond, the Confederate capital, had fallen on April 3. On April 9, General Robert E. Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia to Union General U.S. Grant. On April 14, President Abraham Lincoln was shot in the head while watching a play, and his Secretary of State, at a different location, was seriously injured. The President died early the next day, changing the course of our nation post-war. Lincoln's assassin, John Wilkes Booth, escaped, but was cornered in a barn near Port Royal, Virginia on April 26, and was mortally wounded. And, also on April 26, the largest Confederate surrender occurred at Bennett House, near Durham, North Carolina.
Meanwhile, hundreds of miles from North Carolina, Vicksburg, Mississippi had become a gathering place for former Civil War soldiers in transit. Many of them were released prisoners of war, some survivors of one of the most notorious POW camps, Andersonville (Camp Sumter) in Georgia. All were eager to go home.
The Mississippi River was at flood stage. Many levees had been destroyed during the war. In the best of times, the Mississippi was a treacherous river to navigate. Riverboat pilots were well trained. The best known perhaps was Samuel Clemens, who later became famous as author Mark Twain.
Under the circumstances, the river was even more dangerous than usual.
With the crush of soldiers waiting for transit, a luxury steamboat called the Sultana was pressed into service. Built in 1863, it had a legal capacity of 376. But when it left Vicksburg it was crammed with over 2,100 soldiers. Many were weakened by their recent POW experiences.
On April 26, the Sultana arrived in Helena, Arkansas, having successfully navigated the flooding river. Perhaps the last known photos of the ship was taken there, clearly showing the overcrowded conditions. From there, the next stop was Memphis, Tennessee. The Sultana arrived in Memphis around 7pm on April 26 and left Memphis about midnight.
Around 2am, the Sultana, by then only about seven miles north of Memphis, exploded. Many survivors were just too weak to save themselves. Others were severely burned, or suffered from hypothermia in the ice cold river. Hundreds went down, clinging to each other. Others survived by clinging to trees jutting out of the flooded river.
The exact death toll is not known, as some bodies were never recovered, but the official death toll stands at 1,800 (mostly men, but also a handful of women). Some survivor accounts are available online, if you are interested, and there are other resources available online, and on Facebook.
Why did the Sultana explode? Was it due to the overcrowding? Or, was it, as some believe, sabotage? Or was it due to the design of the tubular boilers that powered it, a design known to be dangerous? There has been speculation over the years, not only about the explosion, but why the Sultana was so overcrowded. Who benefited financially from the overcrowding? There are many online sources filled with information about this disaster - I invite you to read more (and the purpose of this blog post is not to speculate.)
Why is this disaster not well known today? I speculate that, in the four years prior, we in the United States had become inured to massive death tolls in Civil War battles. Gettysburg. Chickamauga. Spotsylvania Court House. The Wilderness. Chancellorsville. Shiloh. Stones River. Antietam. When you have 51,000 casualties (dead, injured, captured) in one battle (Gettysburg), what is 1,800 in comparison?
And, with the war basically over, people were still dying. On the Sultana, some 1,800 humans died, not due to battle or POW camp, but because of a maritime disaster unknown to many today.
Perhaps the 150th anniversary tomorrow will change that.