Thursday, July 3, 2014

The History Detectives Tackle the Sultana Mystery

The SS Sultana was a Mississippi River side-wheel steamboat that exploded on April 27, 1865 in the greatest maritime disaster in United States history. An estimated 1,800 of her 2,427 passengers died when three of the boat's four boilers exploded and she sank near Memphis.

The wooden steamboat was constructed in 1863 by the John Litherbury Boatyard in Cincinnati for transporting cotton in the lower Mississippi. The 1,719 ton vessel was manned by an 85-man crew. During her lifetime, she operated between St. Louis and New Orleans carrying cotton and Union troops.

On April 21, 1865 the Sultana left New Orleans for St. Louis with 75 to 100 passengers and a cargo of livestock. She stopped at Vicksburg for repairs to her boilers and to take on more passengers. A break was discovered in one of her boliers, and instead of replacing it, a patch was placed over the leak. This repair took about one day compared to three days to replace the boiler. 

With the war over, soldiers tried get on board to return home. More than 2,000 men forced, bribed, and threaten to gain passage on the crowded steamer. With a legal capacity of only 376, she was severely overcrowded. 
Most of the new passengers were Union prisoners of war from Ohio who had just been released from Confederate prison camps such as Cahawba and Andersonville and were anxious to return home to be cared for by family and friends. The Federal government had contracted with the Sultana to transport these soldiers to their homes. Many of the POWs were very weak due to their poor treatment, battle wounds, and illness.

At 2:00 a.m. on April 27, 1865, the "repaired" boiler exploded and the steamer sank 7 to 9 miles  north of Memphis. The explosion threw some of the passengers on deck into the water and destroyed a large section of the boat. The forward part of the upper decks collapsed into the exposed furnace boxes which caught fire and consumed the remaining superstructure.
The first boat on the scene was the southbound steamer Bostonia II, which arrived at about 3:00 am, an hour after the explosion, and overtook the burning wreck to rescue scores of survivors. The hull of the Sultana drifted about six miles to the west bank of the river, and sank at around dawn near Mound City. Other vessels joined the rescue, including the steamers Silver Spray, Jenny Lind, and Pocohontas, and the Navy tinclad Essex and the sidewheel gunboat USS Tyler.

Passengers who survived the initial explosion had to risk their lives in the icy spring runoff of the Mississippi or burn with the boat. Many died of drowning or hypothermia. Some survivors were rescued from the tops of semi-submerged trees along the Arkansas shore. Bodies of victims were found downriver for months. and many bodies were never recovered. About 700 survivors, many with horrible burns, were transported to hospitals in Memphis. Up to 200 of them died later from burns or exposure.

The official death toll calculated by the US Customs Service was 1,800 and other estimates are from 1,300 to 1,900. Of the total casualties, Ohio lost 791 dead. Indiana 491, and Kentucky 194 dead.  Many of the dead were buried at the Memphis National Cemetery. An estimated 700 to 800 survived the disaster.

Controversy has surrounded the disaster with accusations of shoddy repairs to the boiler and sabotage by Confederate pies.  Enter the History Detectives.

The History Detectives tackled the mysterious explosion of the SS Sultana. They tried to answer the question: Was it an act of Confederate sabotage? Faulty machinery? Dangerous conditions? The detectives met with descendants of Rebel boat burners and Sultana survivors, discovered government records, and hunted for the wreck site. The team uncovered a tale of incompetence, bribery, politics and patronage that led all the way to President Lincoln and the White House.

The research conducted by the History Detectives is brilliant.  They approached the problem in using a multi-disciplinary approach.  I recommend that readers view the program and retrace the steps that were used to solve the mystery. The cause of the explosion seems to be due to overloading the Sultana. The crowded conditions on the ship resulted in passengers being packed on deck and hurricane deck which made the ship top heavy and caused it and its boilers to roll as the steamship made her way upstream in the flood-stage waters of the Mississippi. The question now becomes what caused the overloading especially when two other steamships, which could have carried the POWs, passed Vicksburg. 

The obvious reason seems to be greed.  The steamship owners probably bribed Col. Reuben Hatch, the quartermaster at Vicksburg, to pack the ship and thus receive the government's compensation of $5/enlisted man and $10/officer.  The culprit in allowing this was Col. Hatch.  The History Detectives discovered that this incompetent and corrupt officer remained in office by virtue of influence on President Lincoln by his Illinois supporters. Interestingly, the official inquiry found "there is no evidence that it was caused by overcrowding of her decks."   

  • Mention of Assistant Quartermaster R. B. Hatch in Grant's report on Battle of Belmont (Series 1 - Volume 3, Official Records, 271,281).
  • Arrest of Captain Hatch by Grant. "Every day develops further evidences of corruption in the quartermaster's department ..." (Series 1 - Volume 7, Official Records, 546).
  • Advising Brig. Gen. Quinby against taking large transports into lake (Series 1 - Volume 24 (Part I), Official Records, 404).
  • Reports on Sultana disaster from Maj. Gen. Dana, Maj. Gen. Cadwallader, Bvt. Brig. Gen. Hoffman, Brig. Gen. Holt, Acting Ensign James E. Berry, Maj. Gen. Wasburn, and others. See especially charges against Captain Speed.  (Series 1 - Volume 48 (Part I), Official Records, 210-226)

See History Detectives episode on the Sultana - Civil War Sabotage

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