The Sinking of the Sultana

Many people have never heard of the Sultana yet more lives were lost during this maritime disaster than was lost with the sinking of the Titanic.  One reason it should be of interest to us is that there were young Scott County men abroad this steamboat, some who died and some who survived.

The fateful journey began April 21, 1865 when the Sultana departed the New Orleans wharf carrying approximately 250 passengers and crew.  It docked at Vicksburg, Mississippi at 8:45 p.m. on Apr 23.  A local boilermaker was called upon to patch a bulge in a boiler.  After first refusing saying it needed more intensive repairs, he finally agreed to make a smaller repair after being promised the more intensive repairs would be made in St. Louis.

Meanwhile, Union soldiers were being discharged from active duty and needed transportation home, as well as soldiers released from the Andersonville and Cahaba Prison Camps.  Greed, ambition and bribery of the boat’s captain and Union officers in charge of transporting the troops home would play greatly into this tragedy.  The Army paid per soldier for transportation so the more soldiers a boat’s captain could take, the more money he made.  The Sultana’s legal carrying capacity was 376 and yet she was carrying over 2400 passengers when she departed Vicksburg April 24 at 9:00 p.m.  The prisoners were willing to suffer with the overcrowded conditions believing they were now safe and headed home to loved ones.  Many were in ill health and now weighed less than 100 lbs.

At approximately 2:00 a.m. on April 27th, seven miles south of Memphis, Tennessee, three of the four boilers erupted.  The explosion shot the entire center section (including the pilothouse) of the steamer into fragments and threw hundreds of passengers into the river.  Flying debris killed and dismembered hundreds of others.  The only lifesaving equipment on board were 76 cork-filled life preservers, one yawl and one single lifeboat.  Approximately 1800 lives were lost.

A group of survivors would form the Sultana Association to encourage Congress to erect a monument to those that died that day.  One of those organizers was James H. Kimberlin of Scott County, IN.  He died April 28, 1924, 59 years and one day after the sinking of the Sultana and would never see any action by Congress for such recognition.

For more information about the Sultana, read the book, The Sultana Tragedy, by Jerry O. Potter.

For questions about this post or any other Scott County history question, please feel free to contact Wanda S., our library genealogist by email at wandas@scott.lib.in.us or by telephone at 812-752-2751.

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