As a historian I may be more aware of anniversaries and significant dates than most people are. As someone born and raised in the South, I was made particularly aware of the significance of dates between ’61 and ’65. In the early 1960s I attended a new high school named after a Confederate general, at a time when the centennial of the “War of Northern Aggression” was being observed.
And now, somehow, we’re up to—even just past—the sesquicentennial of that war, with less attention paid to it than I would have expected. April of 1865 was a tumultuous month in American history, with Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House (Apr. 9), the assassination of President Lincoln (Apr. 15), the death of John Wilkes Booth (Apr. 26), and the disaster of the steamboat Sultana (Apr. 27).
Okay, you were probably with me right up to the steamboat. The explosion and sinking of the Sultana was the greatest maritime disaster in U. S. history, killing at least 1800 people. (About 1500 people died on the Titanic.) It got far less media coverage than it should have at the time because of the drama surrounding Lincoln’s assassination and the death of Booth on the 26th. I was reminded of this tragedy by the recent sinking of the ship carrying refugees from Libya to Italy, which resulted in over 900 deaths. Sadly, there are similarities between the two disasters.
The Sultana was a side-wheeler built in 1863 for service between St. Louis and New Orleans. It was designed to carry 375 passengers, a crew of 85, and cargo. In April of 1865 the boat was docked in Vicksburg, Mississippi, when its captain, J. Cass Mason, was approached with an opportunity to make a considerable sum of money.
Prisoners released from Confederate camps in Georgia and Alabama were housed in Vicksburg, awaiting transport north. The U. S. government offered $5 per enlisted man and $10 per officer to anyone who would carry the men. Captain Mason needed money and so was receptive to an offer made by Lt. Col. Reuben Hatch. Hatch proposed putting 1400 prisoners on the Sultana, with himself receiving a kickback from Mason.
On April 24 the Sultana took on cargo and about 100 passengers. Then the Army loaded 2100 paroled prisoners—many of them sick or injured—onto the boat. When she pulled away from the dock in Vicksburg, every conceivable spot was packed with men, so much so that the decks began to sag. When the boat docked at Helena, Arkansas, on April 26, a photographer took a picture which shows men occupying every square foot of the decks.
The boat was driven by four steam boilers. Before she left Vicksburg one of the boilers had been given a temporary repair, instead of being replaced as the mechanic urged. Captain Mason had not wanted to replace the boiler because he knew some other steamboat would take the ex-prisoners while the work was being done and his lucrative deal would vanish.
The Mississippi River was in flood stage that month, spreading up to three miles over its banks on either side. The Sultana made slow progress against the current. Early in the morning of April 27, seven miles north of Memphis, her boilers exploded and the boat was turned into an inferno, eventually burning down to the waterline. Those who weren’t killed by the blast had to choose between staying on the burning hulk or jumping into the cold, swirling Mississippi. Many drowned. Several hundred survivors who were picked up died later from burns or exposure.
Captain Mason died in the explosion. No one was ever found culpable.
I see similarities between the Sultana tragedy and what happened to the Libyan refugees, as well as others who have died in smaller-scale incidents. Desperate people were taken advantage of by greedy people who ignored the most basic safety precautions in order to maximize their profit. The governments involved had no meaningful plan to help their people. We’re supposed to learn from history, but, sadly, things haven’t changed much in 150 years.