In April 1865, as the Civil War drew to its close the Mississippi Steamboat Sultana under the command of the experienced Riverboat Captain John C Mason, commissioned to return recently liberated Union prisoners-of-war home to Illinois, left New Orleans with a cargo of livestock bound for Vicksburg where the troops eagerly anticipated its arrival.
On the journey to Vicksburg the Sultana had encountered problems with one of its boilers and upon docking Mason had ordered that a hasty repair be done but he could see no reason for the journey to be delayed for any length of time.
Many of the soldiers due for transportation had suffered terribly in the Southern prisoner-of-war camps where threadbare shelter, poor sanitation, a scarcity of food, and little in the way of medical care had taken its toll.
Tens of thousands had already died and many of the returnees were sick with malnutrition and disease and there were a great many stretchers waiting at the quayside.
The Sultana only had a capacity for 375 passengers and crew so space aboard the boat should have been limited but such was the desperation of the prisoners to get home that they were willing to bribe the crew to get a berth and fights even broke out at the dockside which resulted in order having to be restored by force.
Captain Mason, who was being paid a rate of $5 per passenger did little to control numbers and by the time the Sultana left Vicksburg crammed to the rafters and with standing room only it is estimated that the small Mississippi Paddle Steamer had more than 2,400 people on board.
By 2.00 am on the morning of 26 April the Sultana was some 9 miles north of Memphis, Tennessee, when a huge explosion rent the still night air lighting up the area for miles around.
The Sultana had ignited – the two smokestacks trembled for a moment before crashing onto the deck crushing dozens of men who were too tightly packed to move out of the way in time. Those near the boilers had been incinerated whilst others below decks, including many of the sick, were crushed by falling girders or drowned by the in-rushing water.
Consumed by fire the Sultana quickly began to sink and many entangled in the debris and unable to escape were burned to death. Others on the higher decks were thrown into the cold, swirling River Mississippi.
Robert Talkington of the 9th Indiana Cavalry later recalled:
“The steam was so hot I could scarcely breathe. I groped my way out of the place as quick as I could. It took me a moment to realise what had happened. A boiler had blown up. Within a few minutes the ship caught fire. When the crowd fully realised what had happened men began to jump in the water by the hundreds.”
What was left of the Sultana continued to career out of control down the fast-flowing Mississippi as those survivors in the water clung to every available piece of wreckage or desperately grabbed for the branches and shrubbery on the, riverbank.
The first rescue boat did not arrive for over an hour by which time many had already drowned or had died of hypothermia and not in time to save Lt Harvey Annis who was swept away still carrying his seven year old child in his arms as his wife Anne clinging onto part of the rudder looked on. She was later rescued.
By the end of an anxious and confused night around 800 people had been plucked alive from the water but many of these had been horribly burned and more than 300 were later to die in hospital.
The wreckage of the Sultana was to continue downriver for many miles until finally foundering near Mound City in Arkansas. The task of recovering the dead bodies was grim work and no survivors were found on board.
The official death toll from the Sultana disaster was 1,547 but it is widely accepted that it was probably nearer 1,900.
The Sultana Tragedy was largely overlooked by a press still absorbed by the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln twelve days earlier and the surrender of the last significant Confederate force still under arms Joseph E Johnstone’s Army of the Tennessee on the day she sank.
After four years of bloody civil war no one seemed to care much that another thousand or so had died.
The Official Inquiry into the disaster blamed it on an exploding boiler and Captain Mason’s decision to sail full-steam ahead despite being aware that the boilers were not working as they should. It was declared to be a tragic accident but then the truth was perhaps less palatable.
In 1888, William Streetor, a resident of St Louis in Missouri reported that Robert Louden, a Confederate Spy and Saboteur as he lay dying of Yellow Fever in 1867 had confessed to being responsible for the sinking of the Sultana.
Louden had worked for the Confederate Intelligence Service and had been responsible for several of the more than 60 Union Steamships destroyed on the Mississippi during the war and had been in Memphis the night the Sultana had docked and as far as he was concerned the war was not yet over.
Despite the surrender of Robert E Lee’s Army of North Virginia at Appomatox Court House the Confederacy still had armies in the field and its President Jefferson Davis had declared that the fight would go on. Besides being an ardent Southern patriot Louden also had every reason to personally hate the Yankees having endured great hardship as a prisoner-of-war himself, and both his wife father and father had been arrested for being Southern sympathisers.
He had vowed vengeance against the damned Yankee should he get the opportunity, and now he had that opportunity.
Louden had been a close friend of Thomas Courtenay, the man who had invented the coal torpedo.
The coal torpedo was a lump of cast iron packed with explosives in the shape of a piece of coal. Loudon was very familiar with these and had used them many times.
Among the men who were re-stocking the Sultana with coal that night were some of Louden’s agents who smuggled him aboard with the bomb on his person. He then covered it in coal dust and placed it in the bucket near the main boiler knowing that it would be used in the next few hours.
A death bed confession is considered to be very powerful evidence and if true then Robert Louden had committed one final act of terrible vengeance against the Yankee he hated so much.
But it counted for nothing in the end.
The Confederacy was beaten and within two years of those who had been the victims of his last act of defiance he too was dead.