by Andy Mateja

One of the saddest tragedies experienced by released Union prisoners during the entire conflict occurred just days after the virtual end of the Civil War. It occurred when the Mississippi river steamer “Sultana” was overloaded with recently freed Union prisoners, many of whom who had survived on the battlefield and horrendous Confederate Prison of War camps, met their tragic end on the very vessel that was supposed to bring them home.

The Sultana was actually fitted for transporting captured bales of cotton with tall smokestacks designed to reduce possibility of fire from boiler room sparks. Its usual run was from New Orleans to St Louis after fall of Vicksburg in July 1863. The ship’s boilers were in desperate need of repairs. However instead of replacing boilers only the “leaks” were dealt with. The steamers final trip began on April 13th 1865 when sailed down to Vicksburg to retrieve some of the 5000 recently released Union prisoners, most of whom had already suffered as prisoners in Andersonville GA and Cahaba AL. Military authorities were authorized to pay transportation charges of $5 per enlisted man and $10 per officer. Greed had been the motivator for Capt Mason of the Sultana to overload his steamer. Political corruption was also rampant at this time with Capt Mason being protected from prior infractions by his brother… the Illinois Secretary of State. To further complicate the matter, Union military officials were refusing to release comparable Confederate prisoners …unaware that Gen Robt E. Lee had surrendered just a few days before ….

Confederate authorities, realizing the war was now lost nevertheless released the Union prisoners anyway. Captains of other vessels were also bribing Union officials to get their share of released prisoners for transportation back home. The Sultana was next in line to receive released prisoners but was told only 400 would be given to them, while expecting more than 1000. Capt Mason whined about this and Union authorities agreed to “revise” the amount place 1400 total men on his steamer instead. The Sultana was only approved to transport 376 passengers and already had a boiler in need of immediate repair, which would delay the sailing and the released prisoners would no doubt have been given to another vessel. Mason decided to just “patch” the ruptured boiler plates so as to allow for immediate departure. The released prisoners to be transported were primarily from Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Kentucky and West Virginia and were to be delivered to Cairo IL and from there railed to Columbus OHIO for disbursement.

While the Sultana was being deliberately overloaded, another vessel, nearly empty, was nearby and offered to help transport the overflow. The “excuse” given to the released prisoners eager to get home was that the other vessel was infected with Smallpox which none of them wanted to risk after their ordeal in Andersonville…

Men were crowed on upper and lower decks of the steamer with no room to move about.  As it turned out, a total of 2100 passengers, including the crew and paying passengers were packed on the decks along with120 barrels of sugar and 30 mules and horses.

The Sultana began its return trip to the North on April 24th. .  After two days of sailing upriver it was realized that when the occupants would shift about on deck to see things on one side or the other, the steamer was become unbalanced and rot remain on an even keel. River water would then dangerously splash onto the red-hot boilers and instantly turn to steam.   A few of the released prisoners had later left the ship in when it docked in Memphis. They had assisted in the unloading of most of the heavy sugar cargo which afterwards made the steamer “top heavy” without adequate ballast. They did however take on a load of coal which balanced the weight somewhat.

Sadly, a few hours after departing Memphis, two of the boilers “blew up”. A gaping hole in the center of the vessel was the result which resulted in flying coal and furnace bricks crushing many of the invalided former prisoners along with many others. Scalding steam killed many more as the Sultana erupted into flames.  Mass confusion existed as overcrowded decks resulted in pushing and shoving to exit the vessel before the flames arrived.  Grabbing for anything that floated, men leapt into the Mississippi River to escape certain death.

Fortunately another river steamer who tried to help the doomed passengers, but it was too late for many of them, as only 150 were rescued by this vessel.

The Sultana ultimately sank around 9 AM on April 27th. Ironically the last remaining major Confederate Army had surrendered in North Carolina just the day before effectively ending the Civil War. 1238 had died according to military records. 783 were rescued. Some believed that almost 1700 had actually perished. Three separate investigations were undertaken to determine the cause of this disaster. Some had believed the cause may have been a Confederate bomb planted in the coal bins similar to what happened at Grants headquarters in City Point VA the year before. This turned out not to be true.

This heartbreaking catastrophe received very little media attention in the East, as many were focusing all of their attention on the death of Abraham Lincoln and the End of the War.   No memorials were ever created for those who died in this tragic event which had occurred on the heels of the Victorious END of the deadliest conflict in American History ……………..

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