The SS Sultana Disaster & 1200 Half-Forgotten Soldiers
The Tragedies of the Sultana
The SS Sultana’s final tragedy came at 2:00 AM on April 27th, 1865, and cost the lives of at least 1,169 men
Hundreds of pounds of steam pressure, which had battered the steamboat’s brittle boilers for a week, broke free in a skin-frying flash of steam and flames. The explosion tore through the decks above, turning them into shards of wood shrapnel. 2,000 men, hundreds of Indiana soldiers among them, were torn from sleep on the Sultana’s deck, either blasted into the muddy waters of the Mississippi or tossed onto the ship’s upper decks. Countless bodies floundered in the water, some screaming, some silent.
The steamboat, amazingly enough, continued to float. Although three of the four boilers had exploded, the steamboat’s hull remained intact. The tottering remains of the ship’s superstructure framed the gaping hole of the explosion, which still held the ship’s furnace, now yawning wide open. For a moment, there was only splashing and screams and a silent ship.
But the Sultana, which had a maximum capacity of under four hundred men, had held over 2,000. The swaying upper decks crawled with shocked, blinking men and, unsupported by still overladen with bodies, the broken wooden beams of the superstructure toppled forward.
Into the brightly-burning furnace.
Tons of dry wood kindled then roared in flames. In seconds, the Sultana transformed into a floating Hell.
The remaining men burned to death or jumped into the water. They swam in a panic, many injured, most already malnourished and weak from the war. The safety of the Mississippi shore waited a hundred yards away in heavy current. Soldiers grabbed for purchase on anything that floated by, including each other. In minutes, the cold waters of the Mississippi drained the warmth and strength from the men’s bodies. Facing these compounding hardships, many men simply gave up and sank into the opaque murk of the Mississippi.
Help came an hour later, when another steamship traveling downstream saw the still-burning wreckage and started fishing soldiers and crew from the water. In nearby Memphis, survivors strong enough to tread water or grip flotsam began streaming past the waterfront, yelling for help. Soon every boat able to fight the Mississippi’s waters came to the site of the Sultana explosion, rescuing as many men as possible.
A Tragedy of Envy
The SS Sultana remains a half-told tale in American history, and much of that blame can fall without question onto the shoulders of John Wilkes Booth.
A popular actor in his day, the young and handsome John Wilkes Booth presented himself as a case study in misplaced anger and envy. Although a significant theatre draw in his own right, he never received the attention or acclaim of his older brother, Edwin Thomas Booth, who had earned a reputation as the greatest American theatrical actor ever. John Wilkes Booth came from a family of lauded thespians, with his elder brother Edwin the shining star. Booth came to the profession striving to exceed even his brother’s fame, but fell short.
Relying more on his good looks than great talent, John Wilkes Booth became a kind of pop star of the theatre. This was certainly an achievement in its own right, but for the envious John, that wasn’t enough. He was an angry young man, and his confused anger (and near obsession with Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar) searched for and found a target…in Abraham Lincoln.
An early believer in the Lost Cause Myth, Booth saw Lincoln as Caesar and the Southern populace as Brutus. The former a tyrant and the latter a noble hero. Booth attended and enjoyed the hanging of abolitionist John Brown, and his hatred of Lincoln was no secret. Booth even went so far as to single Lincoln out during a performance by shaking his finger at the president. A gesture which Lincoln noticed.
With the Union victory and Lincoln’s reelection both assured, Booth’s obsession festered. He withdrew from profitable business ventures. His acting suffered. He established a circle of conspirators who plotted (then abandoned) a plan to kidnap Lincoln. Kidnapping changed to assassination when Lincoln announced his support for African-American voting rights.
Planning carefully with his conspirators, no doubt half-reenacting Shakespeare’s Caesar in the back of his mind, Booth concocted an ambitious plan to kill not just Lincoln, but Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State Seward in a single night. Only one attempt would succeed.
On April 14th, 1865, while the SS Sultana chugged on its way to Cairo, Illinois, to pick up the swarm of Union troops, Booth crept into an unguarded theatre box, cocked his .41 Derringer pistol and forever changed history. It was the only time a single pistol would drown out the explosion of three steamship boilers.
In the war-torn United States, with telegraph systems in poor repair, especially in the South, news traveled slowly. Captain James Cass Mason, the captain of the SS Sultana, invested in a stack of newspapers announcing Lincoln’s assassination, and planned on distributing them as he made his way to Louisiana (given the captain’s character, no doubt for a profit).
Even after the Sultana exploded, news of Booth’s deed, escape and subsequent chase by the American military dominated the headlines. Booth himself was shot and killed the day before the Sultana’s explosion, denying the disaster a prominent position in newspaper headlines. That sentiment of treating the explosion as an afterthought lasts even until today.