The SS Sultana Disaster & 1200 Half-Forgotten Soldiers
A Tragedy of Greed
Like many historic events, run-of-the-mill greed lay at the heart of the SS Sultana’s tragedy.
Captain James Cass Mason saw an opportunity to make a small fortune and couldn’t pass it up. The quartermaster of Vicksburg needed to clear out a swarm of Union troops from his jurisdiction and saw Mason’s nearly-300-foot steamship as a chance to do it in one fell swoop. Safety regulations be damned, he bribed Mason to take on roughly 1500 troops and transport them to the North, delivering them safely home and earning the quartermaster a sizable price (approximately $5 per soldier, or about $75 in 2018 dollars). The Vicksburg quartermaster promised that if Mason helped him out, he’d get a nice chunk of that.
Mason instantly agreed and welcomed the troops to the decks of the SS Sultana. Every inch of the deck was soon packed with thin, war-weary troops. The combined weight of all these men on a steamship that was rated to carry a maximum of 376 troops, strained the superstructure. Carpenters were hurriedly called for and wooden braces were added to sagging floor joists. Mason didn’t worry. It was only until the Sultana made its way up the Mississippi to the Ohio River. This combination of stupidity and greed would cost most of these men their lives.
Just ten miles out of Vicksburg, however, one of the straining boilers ruptured at its seam. Although the rupture was small and slowed the vessel only marginally, any sensible captain should have realized the danger it foreshadowed. But Mason ignored it. Instead of replacing the boiler, which was the least he could have done to prevent disaster, he talked the anxious ship’s mechanic into simply banging the rupture flat and covering it with a thin patch of metal. Waiting for the boiler to be replaced would mean three days dockside, and his current cargo of men would disperse to other, faster means of getting up the river. Mason would then receive nothing.
When the ship exploded two days later, first one boiler blew and then two more in quick succession. It stands to reason that the boiler with this shoddy repair was likely the first to explode.
Why and how Captain James Cass Mason could be so obtuse in his judgment are questions that can never really be answered. He, fittingly, died in the disaster, as did any reasoning behind his greed.
A Tragedy of Chance
Of the many elements contributing to the Sultana’s explosion, some were simply chance. Floods had plagued the lands around the Mississippi River, causing a stronger current, and a more difficult course for the steamship. The boilers, already taxed to their limit with the heavy load, had to work even harder to adhere to the projected timetable.
Unlucky chance befell the boilers themselves. The cast iron used to manufacture the boilers, although considered reliable in its day, was abandoned fifteen years later for becoming brittle after repeated heating and cooling. Additionally, the muddy waters of the Mississippi, made even muddier by the recent flood runoff, created spots of uneven heating in the boilers, a recipe for disaster in thermodynamics. The long, tube-shaped boilers exacerbated this problem, causing clumps of mud to accumulate at the bottom of cast iron container, creating even more heating and cooling issues.
The physical condition of the troops were likewise a factor in the disaster’s number of fatalities. The majority of the troops on the Sultana had transferred in from a parole camp, and before that, the notorious Andersonville Confederate Prison (to be fair, readers should note the Union had a camp less infamous but equally terrible: Elmira Prison Camp in New York). These Union soldiers, horribly malnourished and underweight, had recovered slightly in the interim, but when the Sultana went down, their weakened state killed them as surely as the explosion.
The Unkindest Tragedy of All
The wreckage of the Sultana finally reached shore six miles downriver from the site of the explosion, but was tragically lost to history for over a hundred years. The course of the Mississippi River wasn’t static but had shifted course in the interim years, erasing any trace of the Sultana.
It wasn’t until 1982 that a team of archaeologists using metal detectors discovered a mass of timbers and iron that were very likely the remains of the Sultana. This groundbreaking, and heartbreaking, find had been located over 30 feet beneath a soybean field in Arkansas, two miles from today’s Mississippi River.
The rest of the story is a greater tragedy still, because there is none. No documentation or photographs of the Sultana’s final resting place are in circulation, despite this author’s exhaustive search. No teams can report on the excavation of the wreckage because no excavation has been done, despite that spot beneath Arkansas farmland being the Sultana itself. Funding for both an excavation and even a museum is still wanting. The interest and therefore the funds aren’t there.
Considering the tremendous loss of these brave and weary soldiers, and the relative ease of excavating what remains of the wreck today, our public disinterest seems the unkindest tragedy of all.