Year
1865
Month Day
April 27

Union soldiers die in steamship explosion

The steamboat Sultana explodes on the Mississippi River near Memphis, killing 1,700 passengers including many discharged Union soldiers.

The Sultana was launched from Cincinnati in 1863. The boat was 260 feet long and had an authorized capacity of 376 passengers and crew. It was soon employed to carry troops and supplies along the lower Mississippi River.

On April 25, 1865, the Sultana left New Orleans with 100 passengers. It stopped at Vicksburg, Mississippi, for repair of a leaky boiler. R. G. Taylor, the boilermaker on the ship, advised Captain J. Cass Mason that two sheets on the boiler had to be replaced, but Mason ordered Taylor to simply patch the plates until the ship reached St. Louis. Mason was part owner of the riverboat, and he and the other owners were anxious to pick up discharged Union prisoners at Vicksburg. The federal government promised to pay $5 for each enlisted man and $10 for each officer delivered to the North. Such a contract could pay huge dividends, and Mason convinced local military authorities to pick up the entire contingent despite the presence of two other steamboats at Vicksburg.

When the Sultana left Vicksburg, it carried 2,100 troops and 200 civilians, more than six times its capacity. On the evening of April 26, the ship stopped at Memphis before cruising across the river to pick up coal in Arkansas. As it steamed up the river above Memphis, a thunderous explosion tore through the boat. Metal and steam from the boilers killed hundreds, and hundreds more were thrown from the boat into the chilly waters of the river. The Mississippi was already at flood stage, and the Sultana had only one lifeboat and a few life preservers. Only 600 people survived the explosion. A board of inquiry later determined the cause to be insufficient water in the boiler–overcrowding was not listed as a cause. The Sultana accident is still the largest maritime disaster in U.S. history.

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