‘Their Cries Made the Already Dark Night Hideous’ – The Sultana Disaster

April 27, 1865 (Thursday)

It was quite a deal that was offered to steamboat captain J. Cass Mason. The Federal government, he learned, was willing to pay five dollars for each soldier (and ten for each officer) transported from the parole camp in Vicksburg, Mississippi to point in the north. This was proposed to him by Lt. Col. Reuben Hatch, who was then the quartermaster at Vicksburg. Hatch vowed to Mason that he would fill his boat, the Sultana, with 1,400 men if he got a cut of the action. Captain Mason agreed and the ship continued its route until arriving in Vicksburg.

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But when she came into port, it was found that one of her boilers had sprung a leak. This was soon repaired by a local but competent boilermaker, who was perhaps not as confident in his work as he should have been. Due to the pressures of time, a full restoration could not be done, and so it was merely patched. Time was essential because if Mason could not load the 1,400 returned prisoners onto his ship immediately, they would be ushered to others.

And so while the repairs were still being made, he began to load. The loading was no easy process. The ship could normally carry just over 400 passengers and crew. To add an extra thousand, took a bit of effort. They were loaded, recalled one of the parolees, “more like so many cattle than men.” Another, who had been imprisoned in Andersonville, gave a similar analogy, telling that “our condition on this boat was more like a lot of hogs than men.” “We were huddle together like sheep for the slaughter,” said another who was taken prisoner at Franklin, “many as yet suffering from battle wounds and most of them emaciated from starvation in prison pens, as all conversant with Andersonville can testify.”

“We were put on board the steamer ‘Sultana’ while they were patching the boiler,” recalled another, “and I heard the captain of the boat tell the quartermaster not to put any more on, as he had a load already.”

It wasn’t just Mason who noticed this. An officer under Col. Hatch had seen the amount of men being loaded onto the vessel and reported to his commander that it was over-full. Hatch heartily agreed, assuring the officer that he’d correct it. But at a cut of five dollars per head, Hatch had no plans of the sort. Two other steamers were also at the port that day. Hatch could have easily spread the troops among all three, but instead funneled them onto the Sultana.

Hatch had figured that he could get 1,400 men on board, but due to a mix up and a curious side story about bribery, many more of the waiting parolees were shuffled and stuffed onto the Sultana‘s decks. As the ship was about to shove off, the night of April 24, she held over 2,100 men. In addition to the men, there were sixty horses and 100 or so hogs. “The great weight on the upper deck,” wrote an observer, “made it necessary to set up stanchions in many places in spite of which the deck perceptibly sagged.”

“At night,” according to an official report, “it was impossible to move about and it was only with much difficulty that it could be done during the daytime. The cooking was done either by hot water taken from the boilers or at a small stove on the after-part of the main deck, and owing to the limited nature of this arrangement, the difficulty of getting about on the boat, and the want of camp kettles or mess-pans, the cooking could not be very general.”

The Sultana made her way up the river slowly. The banks and levees had been overflowed and the current was swift. Apart from struggling with the cramped and over-crowded conditions, little was of note until they reached Helena, Arkansas on the morning of the 26th. There, by the word of a soldier captured at Nashville and taken to Andersonville, “a photographer was ‘taking’ the boat, and each soldier seemed to be bent on having his face discernible in the picture. I entreated and exhorted prudence, while I saw on the roof, my feet pendant and my hands on a float, momentarily expecting a capsizing and sinking.”

Leaving Helena, the next stop was to be Memphis. “The boat ran smoothly,” told one who had been robbed and captured by Forrest’s Cavalry, “and the soldiers were enjoying the thought of being homeward bound. Yes, with joy that cannot be expressed, although many of them were suffering from wounds received in battle, and all were sadly emaciated from starvation in the prison pens where we had been confined. But now we were en route for home, the cruel war was over and the long struggle closed. Battles, sieges, marches and prison pens were things of the past.”

Later, that evening, the Sultana steamed into Memphis. “The trip to Memphis was very tedious,” recalled a soldier captured at Franklin, “though pleasant in spite of teh enormous crowd ont he boat. We were on our way home, and everybody was cheered by the thought. John Davis, George hill, William Wheeler, Adgate Fleming and I, all belonging to the same company, occupied a small space on the boiler deck, about twenty feet away from the stern of the boat. We arrived in Memphis on the evening of the 26th. While the boat lay at the wharf sugar in hogsheads was being unloaded and we helped. When tired we went upon the streets of Memphis, but soon returned to the boat fearing it might leave us.”

Another, captured in Athens, Alabama, remembered that when they stopped in Memphis, he “went up town and got some refreshments, and I went back on the boat well fed but weary. A comrade, J.W. Dunsmore, and I bunked on the floor about midway on the cabin deck, the only place I could find as the floors of all the decks were completely covered when all of the boys laid down.”

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A cavalryman, captured by Forrest, fondly remembered the hogsheads of sugar. “I found a hogshead of sugar broken as soldiers always do find) and my comrade, William Block, and I filled everything we could find with sugar, intending to eat the sugar and hardtack while going up the river to our destination. We stored our sugar in the front of the pilot house at our heads, for we had made this place our bunk and turned in for the night. Our evening dreams were sweet, for we had eaten about two pounds of sugar each, and then were we not going home to see our loved ones who had mourned for us as dead?”

“I remember well,” wrote a soldier who had been a prisoner since Cold Harbor in June of 1862, “as the boat lay at Memphis unloading over one hundred hogsheads of sugar from her hold, that my thoughts not only wended northward, but I put them in practical shape. The Christian commission had given me a hymn book. At the time I left home, the song ‘Sweet Hour of Prayer’ was having quite a run. I found this, and before the darkness had stopped me in the evening I had committed these words to memory and sang them for the boys, little dreaming how soon I should have to test the power of prayer as well as the hour when it was held.”

Just as the Sultana was about to leave Memphis, two comrades captured at Franklin made their beds on the cabin deck. One remembered “just before I fell asleep, Captain Mason, in command of the boat, came up from below, to go to his stateroom I presume, and was compelled to crawl around on the rail, as the deck was so crowded with men lying down that he could not find room to step, and was in consequence made the subject of several jokes.”

Before she could continue up the river to Cairo, Illinois, the Sultana had to take on coal across from Memphis. By this time, many of the soldiers were asleep. Many others sleep just after. Shortly after midnight, she was ready and left Memphis behind. Over the span of the next two hours, most were fast asleep. Around seven miles above the city, disaster struck.

“At that time I was sound asleep and the first thing I knew or heard was a terrible crash and everything coming down upon us.”

“We had slept about an hour when the crash came. Men, coal, wood and timbers from the boat were thrown over and beyond us. The steam and ashes smothered us so we could scarcely breath.”

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“I felt myself raised to a height and then a crash came; the smoke stack had fallen directly on the pilot house crushing it down almost on us.”

“When it happened, I was sound asleep, and the first thing that I knew or heard was a terrible crash, everything seemed to be falling.”

“I was awakened by a terrible roar and crash. I was on the second deck, my partner’s name was Joseph Test, from Dayton, Ohio. A piece of timber ran through his body, killing him almost instantly. I tried to help him but could not.”

“The smoke-stack fell through the hurricane deck, instantly killing John Howard of Company H, 40th Indiana Infantry, and pinned me fast to the deck, but after a few moments of struggling I succeeded in extricating myself. I then started to help put out the fire, but I fell through the decks hurting my back seriously besides getting badly burned and scalded. I immediately set about helping to extricate those who were caught fast by pieces of the boat. After this, in the company of Capt. Mason, of the ‘Sultana,’ I threw over broken pieces of the boat and other materials for those already in the water, but after a little time the fire became so hot that I was obliged to take to the water.”

“Some one cried out that the rebels had fired onto us. I thought a shell had exploded near me, but found it was hot steam. I jumped up, threw off the blankets and found that the boat was wrecked. The boilers had exploded and the boat was on fire.”

“I was suddenly awakened to my senses, as the fire was all over me and my friend was trying to brush it off; it had already burned most of the hair off from the top of my head.”

“Now hundreds of men came rushing out to get breath. Jamming and crowding commenced. Those crippled were trampled on. The high hanging bridge plank crushed many as it was cut down. The life boats were cut from their fastening; but in such an immense crowd amounted to mere nothing. The cabins over the boilers were shattered and torn out and soon that portion of the boat was on fire.”

“I was either blown through the stairway or thrust out sidewise into the river, but my first consciousness was that of being in the air. When I struck the water I went down twice, when, upon rising the second time, I encountered a piece of the wreck which I seized.”

“I was thrown off the boat, but caught hold of the railing of the banister and remained in that condition until driven off by the flames of the burning boat, falling into the water on the upper side of the steamer as it swung around. The water was full of struggling and drowning people.”

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“Men were running to and fro, trampling over each other in their endeavors to escape. All was confusion. Soon the flame came leaping up and I now realized that the boat was on fire. I stood for a few minutes and listened to that awful wail of hundreds of human being burning alive in the cabin and under the fallen timbers. I tried to get down to the lower deck; found it impossible to go down by the stairway on account of the fire but, fortunately, discovered a rope, and by the aid of that landed on the lower deck. There the men were jumping into the river by the hundreds. The river was full of men struggling with each other and grasping at everything that offered any means of support.”

“What a scene of consternation! I pray God to never let me witness anything like it again. Men lying in all imaginable shapes, some crying, some praying, many who, perhaps, never prayed before for God to help them until it was too late; some with legs broken, or arms smashed, and some scalded and mangled in all ways. Those who were not disabled seemed to be at a loss to know what to do. Many of them stuck to the burning boat until the flames drove them off and they went down in squads to rise no more.”

“We could see nothing to get, so we went to the front end of the hurricane deck and took hold of some ropes and went down to the bow of the boat, and O, what a sight met our gaze! There were some killed in the explosion, lying in the bottom of the boat, being trampled upon, while some were crying and praying, many were cursing while others were singing. The sight I shall never forget; I often see it in my sleep, and wake with a start.”

“Face, throat and lungs burning as if immersed in a boiling cauldron. Crash, crash fall the chimneys on the roof! Oh, that I could shake off this horrible nightmare! But now from all around rise shrieks, cries, prayers and groans. Have I awakened in the dark regions of the lost?”

“Men were crying, praying, swearing, and begging. Wounded in every shape, some with broken legs and arms, others scalded, burnt and dying, their cries made the already dark night hideous, lighted up by the now fiercely burning boat.”

“One poor fellow was pinned down by the wreck and begged some one to help him out. I tried to but the timbers were so heavy that I could not get him loose and so I had to let him burn to death.”

“The confusion was extreme. Some seemed to anticipate death by jumping into the river. Others, by swimming, gained the fragments of the boat, while the ropes along the side were being covered by the men who were suspending from them, as if hesitating between two extremes equally imminent and equally terrible.”

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“If it had not been for teh grace of God we too would have perished. After I had got down on the lower deck I waited for a favorable opportunity to save myself. After a large number of the men had made their escape or were drowned I watched for a clear space in the river, for I was afraid some one would catch hold of me and I would share the fate of the others. I jumped into the river, and swam away as fast as I could for a short distance.”

“I picked up the slats and jumped into the river and started to ‘paddle my own canoe.’ I got along finely until a drowning man caught me by the angle. I kicked him loose and then tried to pull for the shore. Sometimes I would get within fifty yards of the shore and the current would carry me out toward the other side of the river and then I would try for that side, but it would strike me again; so I just kept floating back and forth across the river.”

“I could not keep my head out of the water, and thinking I was going to drown I began to dive, hoping to find something to cling to and reach the shore. In a few minutes I found myself near two men clinging to a board. They tried to keep me off, but I was too strong for them and succeeded in getting a firm hold of it.”

“On coming to the surface again I struck out in the same direction that most of the others did, but thinking I had not acted wisely I turned around to go in the opposite direction when some one caught hold of my frail bark. Not feeling like parting company with my little craft so soon I clutched it with all my might and eventually succeeded in releasing it. I then struck out in the direction of some trees, reaching the little cottonwoods just at daylight.”

“I had no sooner got onto my blind than some one jumped onto my back, taking me down under the water and losing my hat, but I stuck to the blind and scantling; finally got out of the crowd and drifted down with the current, for it was very strong. I had not been drifting long when I saw a light from a boat that was going down the river. Some of the boys were hailing it. I don’t know whether any of them got on or not.”

Helena, Arkansas. April 27, 1865. Ill-fated Sultana
Helena, Arkansas. April 27, 1865. Ill-fated Sultana

“The boat being now under heavy flames gave good light so I could see the timber. When I got about half way between the burning steamer and the shore a boat came down the river with bales of hay, which were dumped into the river. The waves overtaking me I was strangled by their slapping me in the face. At length I got the run of them by diving through one and riding the next.”

“I saw at least twenty drown at once. At last as one would feel he was drowning he would clutch at the nearest, and I believe many a bold swimmer was drowned that night who could have saved himself if alone. I was finally rescued by a life-boat from the steamer ‘Bostonia’ and taken to the cabin of that steam in a cramped and exhausted condition, and was then taken in an ambulance to Overton hospital.”

“I was rescued by the gunboat, ‘Pocahontas,’ at 9 A.M., and was so used up that I had to be lifted into the yawl by the sailors.”

“After a while we saw a boat coming up the river and we hailed it. It had started to pick up the survivors of the wreck. I was the first and my comrade next. The first thing after we got on the boat they brought me a tin cup of whiskey which I drank. I had got so that I could walk by this time. We kept going up the river, picking up men and making them comfortable as possible. We picked up about one hundred and started for Memphis, reaching there about eight o’clock.”

About 700 of the 2,100 had been rescued. Of those, only 550 survived their wounds. A total of around 1,800 were killed in the accident. Ultimately, nobody was ever held responsible.1



  1. Accounts taken from Loss of the Sultana and Reminiscences of Survivors by Chester D. Berry. []

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