Friday, April 27, 2001

Sultana: Titanic of the Mississippi

Written by: Darren Dedo
Case Filed: 4/27/01 - Jackson, Mississippi
Executive Producer: Rick Garner

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It was supposed to be a voyage home for Union soldiers that were former prisoners of war from Georgia and Alabama.
 
"The war was over," says author Jerry Potter. "The Union soldiers who had recently gotten out of Andersonville and Cahaba prisons, were not going to some battle, they were going home."

But tragedy happened.


"The explosion occurred at 2 am on April 27th, 1865, when the sultana was seven miles north of Memphis, Tennessee," details author Eric Saleker.
In a matter of minutes, nearly 1800 people perished on the Sultana. Soldiers...civilians...scattered all over the river. Eyewitnesses describe a horrific sight:

"Some of them sought safety in the river, others panicked and pushed each other into the water. They went over the deck in droves...dying as one person described if like cattle going over the edge of a cliff."

Some folks say on quiet nights you can still hear their screams for help. More people died on Sultana than Titanic. An under the table deal led to the tragedy. "We know that there was money involved," says Pam Newhouse, Editor of the Sultana Remembered. "That there was some corruption going on that took place with the loading of the Sultana. The government was willing to pay and did pay, $5 for every man that was transported...for every regular soldier, and $10 for every officer. This was extremely lucrative. The captain, Captain Mason of the steamboat was in financial difficulty, he had an arrangement with a quarter master to pile on as many of the men, he could possibly take."

The Sultana explosion isn't well known. Some people claim the accident was covered up.

In later years, several people claim disgruntled Confederate soldiers claim that they put a lump of coal in the bin," says Gordon Cotton, director of the Old Vicksburg Courthouse Museum. "What was really an explosive, and when it got put inside that it exploded."

Most artifacts remain in their natural resting place, but some pieces have been recovered like steamboat shaker plates from inside the furnace and fire bricks, also from the furnace. These were found in what now is an Arkansas bean field.

From the Sultana tragedy, a new set of safety regulations were born.
"That caused the birth of the steamboat inspection service which has evolved and was later absorbed by the Coast Guard and a lot of those regulations were a direct result of that explosion we still live by today," says Delta Queen Chief Engineer Dennis Shenk.

Family members of Sultana victims never forget the terrible event.
"It was such a tragedy and those people had gone through so much...the families have gone through much and they're expecting to come home, to be reunited to get on with their lives and this horrible tragedy happens," says Judie Warren, a survivor descendant. Newhouse adds, "Like in the case of my great, great grandfather, his body was never found. So, that means that our memories are their only graves."

The Sultana explosion remains a piece of mysterious history. It took a tragic incident like it to save the lives of future generations. Efforts are underway to build a monument to victims of the Sultana in Vicksburg. Pick of this week's edition of the Planet Weekly, it has the special story of a bride to be who perished tragically on Sultana. One of the illustrations used in this story is courtesy of the Hatford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company. If you'd like a copy of the poster, which is also a calendar, send a check payable to "Hartford Steam Boiler" for $8 (U.S. currency only)to:

Hartford Steam Boiler
Marketing Communications
Attn. Margaret Lawson
10th floor
P.O. Box 5024
Hartford, CT 06102-5024

A return shipping label must be enclosed and indicate whether a flat copy that is suitable for framing is preferred.


Additional Resources:

Sultana Disaster

Sinking of Sultana

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Author Gene Salecker on Sultana

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Historian Gordon Cotton on Sultana

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Who was blamed for the Sultana disaster?

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Author Jerry Potter on Sultana

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