When the Civil War concluded, many of the inmates at Andersonville Prison were taken to temporary parole camps outside Vicksburg, Miss. They were given medical treatment, food and clothing while awaiting transport home, by train or steamboat.
The Sultana, a 260-foot-long wooden Mississippi River side-wheel steamboat which ran a regular route between St. Louis and New Orleans and was frequently commissioned to carry troops. The boat had a capacity of 376 passengers, but was carrying 2,155 when it exploded in the worst maritime disaster in United States history on April 27, 1865. Nearly 1,200 people, most of them soldiers recently released from Confederate prison camp, died in the disaster.
In late April, just after the Civil War had ended, the Sultana arrived at Vicksburg, where Sultana Captain J. Cass Mason was approached by Lt. Col. Reuben Hatch, the chief quartermaster at Vicksburg. Hatch had a deal for Mason, regarding all the newly freed soldiers. Hatch proposed a kickback scheme to Mason, and Mason quickly agreed to the bribe. Soon the boat with was loaded down with more than five times its legal carrying capacity. Many of the paroled prisoners were weak and sick from long months in Confederate prison camps, and they were packed into every available space.
Before arriving in Vicksburg from New Orleans, one of the Sultana’s four boilers had sprang a leak. A mechanic was called and he wanted to cut out and replace a ruptured seam, but Captain Mason knew that by the time the repairs would be completed, his passengers would have been sent home on other boats. Not wanting to lose his golden jackpot of sick soldiers, Mason convinced the mechanic to make temporary repairs by riveting a thin patch of over the seam.
The Sultana left Vicksburg, going north and fighting the strong current of one of the worst spring floods in the Mississippi River’s history. Near 2:00 A.M. on April 27, 1865 seven miles north of Memphis, the Sultana’s boilers exploded. The steam blasted upwards, ripping all three decks into slivers, and sending bodies and men flying a hundred yards across the rushing black water. The Sultana became a drifting, floating, flaming hulk. Next, the the twin smokestacks toppled over onto the hundreds of survivors desperately trying to stay afloat in the frigid, fast moving water. When survivors, clinging to floating debris, began to float past the Memphis waterfront, calling for help, the docked steamboats and U.S. warships crews immediately went to the rescue. About 760 survivors were transported to the vast military hospitals in Memphis.
In spite of the enormity of the disaster, no one was ever held accountable. There were rumors of sabotage but they were quickly dismissed. This disaster was overshadowed in the press by the killing on the previous day of President Lincoln’s assassin John Wilkes Booth.
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