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.