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1865 May 6: The “Sultana” Disaster—“Not less than 1,000 lives were hurled into eternity”

May 7, 2015

The other big news from the past week was the Sultana disaster.  The following article on the Sultana tragedy comes from the May 6, 1865, issue of The Polk County Press.  The ill-fated steamer Sultana had a legal capacity of 376 persons, but by the time she left Vicksburg on April 24, 1865, she was severely overloaded with more than 2,100 paroled Union prisoners.  The men were packed into every available space and the overcrowding was so bad that in some places the decks creaked and sagged.  The Sultana spent two days traveling upriver before the disaster, fighting a powerful and flooding river, one of the worst spring floods in the river’s history.  On April 26, the Sultana stopped at Helena, Arkansas, where photographer Thomas W. (T. W.) Bankes took a photograph of the overcrowded vessel (pictured below).  It was near 2:00 a.m. on April 27, 1865, just seven miles north of Memphis, when the Sultana’s boilers exploded.  The official cause of the Sultana disaster was determined to be mismanagement of water levels in the boiler, exacerbated by the overcrowding and top heaviness.


Boiler Explosion on the Steamer Sultana—The
Vessel Totally Destroyed by Fire—3,200 People
on Board, only 600 saved.

CAIRO, April 28.—The following is the Memphis “Bulletin’s” account of the disaster to the steamer Sultana :

“The Sultana arrived from New Orleans last night, the 20th, with about 2,200 people on board, 1,956 of whom were exchanged Federal prisoners from Vicksburg, the ballance [sic] being refuges and regular passengers from various points down the river.  Proceeding towards St. Louis, she left the coal pile about one o’clock in the morning, and had made some eight or ten miles when an explosion of one of her boilers occurred.  The boat, with its mass of living freight, took fire in the vicinity of the engine and in a short time was burned to the water’s edge, and now lies on a sand bar near Foglemn’s Landing, with nothing visible but her charred remains and her jack staff¹ standing erect.

The "Sultana" at Helena, Arkansas, on April 26, 1865, with a crowd of paroled prisoners on her decks

The “Sultana” at Helena, Arkansas, on April 26, 1865, with a crowd of paroled prisoners on her decks²

The scene following the explosion was terrible and heart rending in the extreme.  Hundreds of people were blown into the air and descending into the water, some dead, some with broken limbs, some scalded, were borne under by the resistless current of the great river, never to rise again.  Survivers [sic] represent their screams as appalling.  With no immediate succor at hand, the desperate efforts to save life were agonizing beyond precedent.  Some clung to frail pieces of the wreck as drowning men cling to straws, and sustained themselves for a few moments, but finally became exhausted and sunk.  Only the best of swimmers aided by fragments of the wreck, were enabled to reach the woods, and there take refuge until rescued by boats sent to them from the landing here to their assistance.  There were about 15 women and children on board, and, as near as can be ascertained, not more than two or three had been found at the hour when this account was written. Some of the wrecked people were borne by the current as far down as the levee at this city, and this was the first intimation officers of the boats in port received of the terrible disaster.  A yawl was immediately sent out from the Marble City, and in a few minutes seventeen persons were picked out of the water and were brought ashore.  Nwo [sic: Two] were afterwards found clinging to the wheel, and they were also saved.

Upon being brought to a realization of the calamity, the officers of boats in port, under notification of Captain Senior of the river guard, steamed up, and in a short time were at the burning steamer, where hundreds of people were picked up and brought to this landing, arriving about daylight.  They were met by numbers of citizens and ladies, who supplied them with abundance of dry clothing from the Quartermaster’s Department, and from various stores.

At this time it is impossible to give a correct statement of the cause of the accident, and the number or names of the lost and saved.  Everything is in the greatest confusion.  Rowberry [William Rowberry; survived], first mate, was on water, standing in the pilot house with Capt. George Cayton [sic: George Kayton, pilot; died], who was at the wheel at the time of the explosion.  He only remembers the shock, and that he was blown into the air, and was afterwards taken from the water.  He saw the lower deck in flames and knows no more.  He can give no idea of the cause of the accident, and says the boat was going at the ordinary speed, and that all seemed well up to the moment the explosion occurred ;  that the second engineer, a sober reliable man named Clemens [Samuel Clemens; died], was at the engines, and that nothing more than common was in progress.  Capt. Cayton [sic] was also hurled into the wreck among broken boilers and rubbish, sustaining slight injures.  He immediately jumped overboard with a door by which he was enabled to reach the Arkansas shore, three miles below, where, striking a sapling he seized and clung to it until saved.  Clemens, the engineer, was badly burned and scalded, and can hardly recover.

Mr. John Fogleman, residing on the Arkansas side, on being aroused by the noise and seeing the burning steamer, hastily constructed a rude raft, and in this way was the means of saving about 100 lives.

In the woods among the drift of the wreck, the officers of the Rose Hambleton found a family bible containing the records of a family named Spike, of Assumption Parish, La.—The names recorded are Samuel D. Spike and Elithea Spike, married Oct. 31st, 1837.  The record shows that there were twelve in the family.  It was subsequently learned that the father, mother, three daughters, two brothers and a niece were lost.  The steamer Bostona No. 2, Capt. Watson was coming down the stream from Cincinnati when the explosion occurred, and rendered very valuable assistance, saving many lives.  The Pocahontas, and Silver Spray, Marble City, gunboats Essex, Rose Hambleton and others also rendered much service at the time.

Capt. Mason [J. Cass Mason; died], of the Sultana, had retired from his watch and was in bed.  He was afterwards seen throwing shutters and doors to the assistance of people in the water, and here all traces of him vanish.  Clerks Gamble [sic: William J. Gambrel, 1st clerk; died]  and Stratton [sic: William Straton, 2nd clerk; died] are also missed.

The body of Wm. Cruddes, Co. I, 1st Virginia Cavalry, from Wheeling, was found.  He had taken the precaution to label himself.  Among the soldiers on board were 30 commissioned officers.  The troops were of various regiments, and nearly all exchanged prisoners.  They belonged principally to Western regiments.

At the hour of writing only 500 or 600 had been saved.  Not less than 1,000 lives were hurled into eternity by this most melancholy of all river disasters.  Hon. W. D. Snow, member of Congress from Arkansas, was on board, and escaped uninjured.

1.  A jack staff is a small vertical pole in the bow of a ship, on which a particular type of flag, known as a jack, is flown.
2.  Original Photographs Taken on the Battlefields During the Civil War of the United States, by Mathew B. Brady and Alexander Gardner (Hartford, Conn.: [Edward Bailey Eaton], 1907): page 105; available in the UWRF University Archives and Area Research Center, E 468.7 .E14 1907. The image is also available in the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Online Catalog);

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