Vicksburg asked for help in erecting marker
The steamboat Sultana left its Vicksburg landing on April 24, 1865, and burned and sank three days later near Memphis. About 1,700 people died. The photo was contributed by the Old Court House Museum.
[04/02/01] Descendants of Union soldiers killed in the worst maritime disaster in American history are asking city leaders in Vicksburg to help erect a marker to those who died on what has been called the “Titanic of the Mississippi.”
Civil War historian Pam Newhouse knows all about the ill-fated journey of the steamship Sultana that left the wharf at Vicksburg on April 24, 1865. Her great-great-grandfather was one of the estimated 1,700 passengers who died three days later when three of the ship’s four boilers exploded as the Sultana steamed north to Cairo, Ill.
“Our memories are their only graves,” Newhouse said of the hundreds whose fate remains unknown. “And we want to keep those memories alive.”
The spring of 1865 had been marked with the end of the four-year struggle between the states when Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomatox Courthouse in Virginia on April 9 and President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C., on April 14.
Almost a year after the city fell to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, Vicksburg had become a staging area for prisoners of war returning to there northern homes. Union soldiers captured during the war and held at camps like Andersonville in Georgia and Cahaba in Alabama were brought to Vicksburg where they awaited passage north on the Mississippi River.
Newhouse’s ancestor, Pvt. Adam Schneider with the 183rd Ohio Infantry had been captured in 1864 at the Battle of Franklin in Tennessee. Schneider spent most of that year at Cahaba before coming to Vicksburg.
For the soldiers who marched the long journey across the state, crossing the Big Black River was a joyous occasion. Once across the river, many saw the American flag for the first time since being captured.
Union soldiers were shuttled by train along the Vicksburg Jackson Railroad line to a camp set up outside the city. Camp Fisk, named after Union Col. Archie C. Fisk, was located about four miles outside of the city limits near where Paxton Road now crosses the railroad tracks, according to historian Gordon Cotton.
Lamar Roberts with the Gray and Blue Naval Museum keeps his model of the Sultana locked in a glass case away from tempted hands of young visitors. Above the case is a painting of the riverboat engulfed in flames.
“People always talk about what a tragedy the Titanic was, but people should remember what happened to the Sultana,” Roberts said.
A sidewheeler built at Cincinnati in 1863 for the lower Mississippi cotton trade, Sultana departed New Orleans on April 21, 1865. The 260-foot ship held only about 100 passengers, a cargo of sugar and nearly 100 assorted livestock.
The Sultana made its way up the river to Vicksburg, where a leak was discovered in one of the boilers. A patch was used despite objections of a local boilermaker.
“They bullied him into it when they knew the entire side of the boiler should have been replaced,” Roberts said.
Union soldiers eager to return to their homes were soon being loaded onto the steamer. Exact numbers were not kept, but it is estimated that some 2,300 people were packed aboard the steamer when it left Vicksburg. The Sultana’s legal limit was 376.
Although other vessels were available at Vicksburg to take on passengers, trainload after trainload was placed on the Sultana. Many speculate one reason the ship was overloaded is money.
The U.S. government was paying $5 for each enlisted man and $10 for officers to the ships to provide passage. The ship’s captain, J. Cass Mason, was also a part owner of the steamer, and more passengers translated into more profit.
“There were several (ships) being loaded here in Vicksburg, but one of them left almost empty because they were all on the Sultana,” Roberts said.
About seven miles upriver from Memphis and three days after leaving Vicksburg, the Sultana passed a cluster of islands known as the “Hen and Chickens” around 1 a.m. There, the hasty repairs on the boiler gave out, and the midsection of the ship exploded in a ball of fire seen as far away as Memphis.
Many victims were killed almost instantly by the explosion. Those who were not caught in the blast now had to choose between remaining on the burning vessel or facing the rapid waters of the Mississippi River.
Late in April 1865, the Mississippi stood at flood stage. War had ruined many levees and dikes, and the river overflowed the banks for miles in each direction.
One survivor wrote later, “The men who were afraid to take to the water could be seen clinging to the sides of the bow of the boat until they were singed off like flies.”
“Shrieks and cries for mercy were all that could be heard; and that awful morning reminded me of the stories of doomsday of my childhood.”
The twin smokestacks of the Sultana gave way as the ship burned and came crashing down, pinning men underneath, trapped in the blaze.
According to another survivor’s account, “When I got about 300 yards away from the boat clinging to a heavy plank, the whole heavens seemed to be lighted up by the conflagration. Hundreds of my comrades were fastened down by the timbers of the decks and had to burn while the water seemed to be one solid mass of human beings struggling with the waves.”
The only person ever brought to trial for the disaster was Frederic Speed, a Union officer from New York. Speed was court-martialed and dismissed from service, but the conviction was later overturned.
Speed remained in Vicksburg after the war and later became a judge. He purchased property south of the city’s downtown area, where a street still bares his name today.