Sultana: An Unimaginable Tragedy Claimed as many Casualties as any Battle

Photograph shows the overloaded steamboat Sultana on the Mississippi River the day before her boilers exploded and she sank on April 27th. No known restrictions on publication. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

Photograph shows the overloaded steamboat Sultana on the Mississippi River the day before her boilers exploded and she sank on April 27th. No known restrictions on publication. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

By April 1865 citizens had grown accustomed to big news events but this month was filled with even more outstanding headlines than usual.

On April 9th, Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to U.S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, signaling the first step in the end of the Civil War.

Shocking the nation, President Abraham Lincoln was shot April 14th and died April 15th from the assassin’s bullet. His murderer John Wilkes Booth was shot and killed on April 26th.

April 27th saw Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston surrender his army to Gen. William T. Sherman and his Union troops in North Carolina. Yet buried in the backs of most newspapers would be one of the single most tragic events of the Civil War. The explosion of the riverboat Sultana.

For a little background, the Sultana was built in Cincinnati in 1863. She ran in the most southern part of the Mississippi River, used mainly for transporting cotton but she was also known to carry U.S. Army officers and soldiers between ports along the river.

On April 21, 1865 the Sultana was docked in New Orleans. She was being loaded with sugar and livestock. There were a few passengers boarded in the 100 cabins of the steamer. By law the Sultana could carry 376 persons which included the crew. Leaving New Orleans on April 24th the Sultana headed for Vicksburg, Mississippi which was a regular stop on her route. While docked in Vicksburg the ship’s captain discovered the Sultana’s boilers were leaking. The repair normally should have taken three to four days yet was completed in a single day. The rush to finish the repair was easy to figure out. In a single word – money.

Ship lines were paid five dollars a head by the government to transport Union soldiers back north. The men about to aboard the Sultana we’re headed to Camp Chase in Columbus, Ohio where they would be mustered out of the army. If the Sultana stayed in dock a couple extra days soldiers anxious to make the trip home would find other ships to make the journey. The repair crew rushed to fix the Sultana’s boilers to get the ship back en route and not lose out on this easy cash.

It’s estimated that 2,300 people were aboard the Sultana when it left Vicksburg. This was six times the number of people it was supposed to carry. In fact crew members had to bolster the second floor deck to keep it from caving in from the weight of so many people.

Recently released Union prisoners of war comprised most of the passengers. Liberated from Cahaba, Alabama and Andersonville, Georgia prisons they were being housed at Union Camp Fisk outside of Vicksburg. From there they would board ships heading north on the Mississippi River. Finally these POWs, recently released from their hellish prison experience would be headed home. After enduring so much in prison camps, being overcrowded on a steamer going home didn’t seem so bad. Many of the men were weakened, ill and in such bad shape their only thought was to get home.

The exact number of soldiers on the Sultana was never known. The ship was so crammed with passengers that it was decided not to make out muster rolls in advance. Roll would be taken once the ship was underway.

Once the Sultana left Vicksburg she made her way north on the Mississippi River, stopping at several smaller ports unloading cargo. The river was high for this time of year with a fast moving current. There had been a lot of rain recently. The steamer, with the extraordinary number of passengers strained to get through the churning waters.

It was late afternoon on April 26th when the Sultana docked at Memphis. Here some of the soldiers, went ashore to get off the overcrowded ship and do some sightseeing. The recently repaired boilers started leaking again and were quickly patched once more so the steamer could get underway. Some of the soldiers who got off the ship did not get back in time and missed boarding the Sultana as it pulled out of Memphis around 7 pm. These men would soon learn that being late probably saved their lives.

It was about 2 am April 27, 1865. The Sultana was just a few miles north of Memphis, straining against the powerful river currents with hastily repaired boilers when the unthinkable happened. The boilers, stretched to their limit, with the extra weight and churning waters, burst. With unbelievable force the explosion, escaping steam and fire tore the mid section out of the ship. The blast was so loud and flames shot so high in the sky it was seen and heard back in Memphis.

 

First appeared in the magazine Harpers Weekly, May 20, 1865.

Sultana in flames – First appeared in the Harpers Weekly magazine, May 20, 1865.

Soldiers, presumably sleeping at that early morning hour, were blasted into the air, then plummeted into the cold April waters of the Mississippi. Some were scalded by the boilers hot steam, others burned by fiery debris. Still others clung to the ship’s remnants or were trapped aboard as the disaster continued to unfold. They too were forced to jump into the river as fire consumed the part of ship they clung to. The Mississippi was littered with the bobbing heads of passengers as they desperately tried to stay afloat. These soldiers were weak from their POW experience. The effort it took to swim, if they knew how or to hang on to whatever they could find floating was too much for most. Battered, burned and scalded they slipped beneath the water’s surface drowning in the Mississippi River. Tragically they were only a few days from reaching home.

By morning, ships of all sizes had arrived at the scene from Memphis, pulling survivors from the river and picking up those who made it to shore. It was estimated that somewhere between 500 and 600 men were taken to Memphis hospitals. About 200 of those survivors died soon afterward either from their injuries, exposure or their weakened condition. It really isn’t known how many people died in the explosion since their wasn’t an accurate list of passengers but it’s generally accepted 1,700 perished although some published accounts put the number at 1,800. To put this horrible incident into perspective 1,754 Union soldiers died at Shiloh.

The Sultana, alarmingly overcrowded with passengers, struggling against unusually high waters, with hastily repaired boilers, exploded and caught fire in the worst maritime tragedy of our country’s history. More passengers died in the Sultana explosion than the sinking of the Titanic. Making it even more heartbreaking is the fact that most of the dead were Union prisoners of war. Men who had survived Andersonville and Cahaba prisons and were finally headed home to their families. May they always be remembered and rest in peace.

Civil War Quick Tip: Take a look at the FamilySearch Memorial Day post

Memorial Day CrossesI hope everyone enjoyed a wonderful Memorial Day weekend here in the U.S. and that you got the chance to honor our fallen soldiers either in a moment of silent tribute or by visiting a cemetery.

Memorial Day is a holiday that has its roots in the Civil War. It was originally known as “Decoration Day” and folks both north and south set aside a specific spring day to pay tribute to their fallen veterans by decorating their graves.

FamilySearch.org did a neat blog post on May 22nd. They asked family historians to share stories of their favorite Civil War ancestor. I was honored to be among the four and wrote a short piece about my own Civil War ancestor. You can find that post here.

Along with some really moving stories about Civil War soldiers, FamilySearch gives several suggestions for Civil War research in their vast databases. You’re sure to find a tip, a record set, or a new search idea that will help you find more on your Civil War ancestors.

So please take a look at the FamilySearch post, “Family Historians Share Stories of Their Favorite Civil War Ancestors” and maybe leave a comment about your favorite or most interesting Civil War ancestor either on their blog or right here in my comments. I’d love to read about your own favorite or interesting Civil War ancestor.

Civil War Quick Tip – Free Genealogy Research!!

Civil War blog reading

Photo Credit: Unsplash

Don’t forget that usually around patriotic holidays most subscription-based genealogy websites offer a few days on their site for free. It is of course their way of showing you all they have to offer in the hope you’ll find lots of value and subscribe. Fold3, the database for military records has done this in the past.

Let me stress, I don’t have inside info but with Memorial Day weekend less than two weeks away Fold3 may offer a free weekend for you to research their records.

If you don’t have a Fold3 subscription you might want to plan on taking advantage of a free offer if it does happen. Start a research log for the veteran you’re researching. List what you already know, regiment, company, enlistment dates, etc. Then state your goal(s), the questions about his service you are attempting to answer.

With this kind of prep work done you’ll be able to take some time out of your busy holiday weekend and make the most of the records on the site.

If a free research weekend isn’t offered or you just don’t have the spare time during the holiday you’ll still have your research log and goals ready to go either for the next free research weekend or you can try your local library. Many libraries have a subscription to Ancestry, Fold 3 and so on. It’s available to those members with a library card so you may want to check that out as well.

Good luck researching and if you find some good stuff leave me a comment. I’d love to hear what you found!

P.S. Happy Memorial Day!

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Ancestors In A Nation DividedIf you’re interested in focusing your research on your Civil War ancestor check out Ancestors In A Nation Divided – available in Kindle and also in paperback. Only $15.77 on Amazon. Great help as you seek your veteran’s place in our country’s history.

 

Also I’d love for you to sign up for my monthly Civil War Research Tips – Finding More on Your Civil War Ancestor here. I’ll share pointers and info to help in researching your Civil War ancestor. Please take a moment to sign up and thanks so much!

Civil War Saturday – My ancestor died on the battlefield. So where’s he buried? Part 1.5

Happy Civil War Saturday friends!!

This is Part 1.5 of My ancestor died on the battlefield. So where’s he buried?

If you checked my last post you saw the research log I’m using. Listed are the resources I’m checking as I begin my research on where my Civil War ancestor who died on a little known, remote battlefield may be buried.

Now just as a recap we’re talking about my first cousin four times removed George S Vanmeter. He was with Co. G 9th Ohio Volunteer Cavalry and was killed in a skirmish with Confederate forces April 12, 1864 on the Jack Peters plantation outside of Florence, Alabama.

Only three men were killed in this small battle. One Confederate and two Union soldiers. The rest of Company G was captured by the men of the 27th and 35th Alabama and sent to Andersonville.

As far as I know his body was not brought back to Ohio for burial. I have never seen a gravesite for him at the cemeteries he would likely be buried at. As family historians I know you’ll understand, I frequent these cemeteries several times a year.

So this round of research includes:

Find-a-grave
Billion Graves
Names in Stone
*Ohio Gen-Web TombstoneTranscription Project
Interment
National Cemeteries

 

Research Log

As you can see my research at these websites did not yield any results but is a good place to start in trying to find where he is buried.

Next week we’ll take a field trip and do some on site research at a repository. See you next Saturday.

*Check the state’s Gen-Web site where your ancestor was from.

Civil War Saturday – My ancestor died on the battlefield. So where’s he buried? Part 1

Research Log
Last week we talked about the brick wall I’ve been working on recently. I have a Civil War ancestor that died in the war and I don’t know where he’s buried. So for the next couple Saturdays I’ll share my research and outcomes with you. Hopefully you’ll find a resource or two that you were not aware of or one you may want to go back and try again.

Now just as a recap we’re talking about my first cousin four times removed George S Vanmeter. He was with Co. G 9th Ohio Volunteer Cavalry and was killed in a skirmish with Confederate forces April 12, 1864 on the Jack Peters plantation outside of Florence, Alabama.

Only three men were killed in this small battle. One Confederate and two Union soldiers. The rest of Company G was captured by the men of the 27th and 35th Alabama and sent to Andersonville.

As far as I know his body was not brought back to Ohio for burial. I have never seen a gravesite for him at the cemeteries he would likely be buried at. As family historians I know you’ll understand, I frequent these cemeteries several times a year.

Today I’m going to look at some standard online resources. I’m not sure how much I’ll learn, but who knows? I may be very surprised and find a nugget or two about him. So let’s begin.

I’ll pull out my research log and my goal will be to find where George S. Vanmeter is buried. I also have a To-Do list handy. That way if I run across another site, or link that will help in some of my other genealogy research I’ll note it and go back to it another time. I don’t want the enticing possibility of another research goal to get me off track of this search or become a time waster.

Check back with me this Saturday as I list out the resources on my research log! See you then!