The Sultana was an ill-fated steamboat that travelled the Mississippi and was the center of the biggest maritime disaster ever in the United States. It is estimated that 1,800 passengers died when one of the ship’s boilers exploded, sinking the Sultana near Memphis, Tennessee. Shortly before the tragedy, President Lincoln had been assassinated, so the Sultana incident had little press.
The Sultana was built in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1863 and was a wooden steamship. Its purpose was to aid the Mississippi cotton trade. The ship ran regular routes from St. Louis to New Orleans and back. The Sultana often also carried troops. It had been commissioned to transport Union ex prisoners of war back to their homes
On April 21, 1865, the Sultana left New Orleans with approximately 100 passengers and some heads of cattle to deliver in St. Louis. The ship stopped in Vicksburg, Mississippi to make some repairs. It was determined that the ship needed a new boiler, but Captain J.C. Mason decided to have the boiler hastily repaired instead of replacing it. While in port. Ex prisoners of war bought and bullied their way onto the ship until the passenger count reached 2000. The Sultana had a capacity of 135, at about 2:00 A.M. the boiler exploded near Memphis Tennessee. Most of the ship was immediately destroyed and many passengers were hurled into the river. The fire could be seen from Memphis.
The first ship to the rescue was the Bostonia II and they rescued many passengers. They were joined in the rescue by the Essex, the Jenny Lind, the Arkansas and the USS Tyler. About 500 people survived the blast and most had tremendous burns. As many as 300 of them died later in hospitals in Memphis. Historical markers were erected in Memphis, TN; Muncie, IN; Marion, AR, Vicksburg, MS; Cincinnati, OH; Knoxville, TN; Hillsdale, MI and Mansfield, OH.