The Forgotten Disaster Of The Sultana

June 3, 2023 | Sarah Ng

The Forgotten Disaster Of The Sultana


The heartbreaking story of the Titanic has captivated millions—but few have heard of the Sultana’s sinking on the Mississippi River. To this day, the explosion of this commercial steamboat is considered the worst maritime disaster in American history.


What Went Wrong?

On the fateful day of April 27, 1865, the Sultana—with a 376-passenger capacity—carried 2,130 people. But that wasn’t all. Unbeknownst to many on board, the boat’s boiler was in a dangerous state of disrepair. To save time, Captain James Cass Mason and his chief engineer made a chilling mistake. They instructed a mechanic to patch up the leaky boiler as a temporary fix. The consequences proved catastrophic.

At two in the morning, the damaged boiler exploded. In a single instant, 400-500 men were lost in a single instant—but this was just the beginning. Only seconds later, two more boilers also exploded. The blast completely demolished the pilothouse, killing Captain Mason. Now ablaze, the Sultana had no one to steer it. But it gets worse.

The Forgotten Disaster Of The SultanaWikimedia Commons

Tragic Consequences

Because the majority of the passengers were paroled prisoners, many of them suffered from illnesses or weak constitutions. So while survivors fled to the water for safety, some were too frail to stay afloat. Although other vessels eventually arrived to assist in the rescue, many survivors drowned or died of hypothermia.

Locals found bodies washing up on the shores of the Mississippi for months after the tragedy, though many were never recovered. In the end, there was an estimated 1,169 casualties. But that wasn’t all. As horrifying as these losses were, the sinking of the Sultana has been largely forgotten.

The Forgotten Disaster Of The SultanaWikimedia Commons

The Press Wasn't Interested

At the time, the press focused entirely on other sensational events, including the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln and the end of the Civil War. What’s more? Despite the overcrowding of the steamboat and improper practices, nobody was held accountable for Sultana’s horrifying downfall.

Sources: 1


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