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Ship of the Damned

The Worst Fresh-Water Shipwreck in American History Virtually Forgotten

The 1912 Titanic disaster is the most famous shipwreck in maritime history. But a freshwater disaster on the Mississippi River killed far more people than the Titanic’s 1,517 deaths. Yet most Americans and the world have never heard of it.

The disaster was especially horrific because the ship carried thousands of survivors of the nation’s most notorious Civil War prison camp—Andersonville, "Hell on Earth." The men who survived Andersonville had defied the odds of survival--starvation, deadly disease, exposure, flesh-eating vermin, infection, fever. One out of three prisoners died unimaginably miserable deaths. The survivors themselves were barely alive, walking dead, naked skeletons.

In April 1865, the North and South brokered a massive prisoner-of-war exchange. Nearly 40,000 Union prisoners from the camps of Andersonville in Georgia and Cahaba in Alabama made their way to Camp Fisk near Vicksburg, Mississippi, where ships lined up in the port to take the emaciated troops home. The U.S. government had offered exorbitant premiums to ship captains—$5 for each enlisted man and $10 for each officer—to transport the Union soldiers back North on the Mississippi River. Ships flocked to Vicksburg and captains loaded their boats stem to stern to the very brim with the ragged passengers.

Such was the case when the young Captain James Cass Mason, part owner of the massive, 260-foot, side-wheeler steam ship Sultana, heard about the government offer and left Cairo, Illinois, hellbent for Vicksburg. The Mississippi River was experiencing one of its worst floods in its history and the roiling, roaring waters were thick and churning with trees, debris and danger. The rapid waters carried the ship downriver to Vicksburg in record time.

On April 26, 1865, Captain Mason bribed the Quartermaster at Camp Fisk, Colonel Reuben Hatch, to allow him to load his boat with more than 2,500 ragged and starving prisoners of war desperate to go home, even though the capacity of the Sultana was only 376. While the emaciated men boarded the ship, so anxious to finally be going home, workmen were working feverishly below deck on one of the Sultana’s boilers, which was malfunctioning.

Before the ship left port, a photographer, shocked by the number of passengers crammed on the ship, asked the captain for permission to take a photograph of the brimming humanity (see above and below). As word spread throughout the ship that a photograph was being taken, men ran to the aft deck to be in the photograph and the ship lurched and nearly capsized! The Captain ordered the men to remain in their places and not move, knowing full well how dangerously overloaded the ship was.

The ship labored against the Mississippi’s roaring flood waters with its massive load of human cargo. At 1:00a.m. on April 27, 1865 on the Mississippi River between Memphis, Tennessee, and Marion, Arkansas, one of the Sultana’s boilers exploded, which in turn caused the other boilers to explode. The force was like a volcano exploding in the middle of the ship, spewing boiling water and fire quickly engulfing the entire boat. The heat was so terrible the water boiled as the ships burned.

In less than 20 minutes most of the ship was engulfed in flames. In the explosion the port wheelhouse was splintered from the main body of the ship but drug in the water causing the boat to spin, which fanned the flames toward the bow (front of the ship), consuming its last refuge from the flames.

The exact death toll was never known but most estimates placed total deaths at far more than 1,800—from drowning to being boiled or burned to death. Men who might have escaped the flames or boiling water were quickly swept away in frigid flood waters. (Most Americans in the 1860s, including Civil War soldiers, did not know how to swim, so jumping into the water meant drowning.) It was the worst maritime disaster in U.S. history and one of the worst in the world.

In a strange and ironic twist of events, those survivors who had escaped the wreck and managed to float to shore ended up on the Arkansas side, which was Confederate. Confederate soldiers, who just days before had been shooting at Union soldiers, and Confederate families, mortal enemies of the Union, helped pull Northern survivors from the cold water and took boats and rafts out to the burning ship to try to save those screaming for help. Some rescuers pulled men from the water and put them in trees partially submerged in the Mississippi’s flood waters, so they could return quickly to save more men.

By dawn, the people of both Memphis and Marion on each side of the river were launching all manners of boats from log rafts to Civil War gun boats to save drowning men. In the end, 700 would be saved from the Sultana, but 1,800 perished, mostly poor souls who had been damned first to the horrors of Civil War battle, then hellish imprisonment with starvation, disease, vermin, and daily death. They would have only brief respite in Vicksburg, believing they were finally free, the war ended, and they were going home, before they meant a most terrifying end.

Why is the most deadly and tragic fresh-water wreck in American history still virtually unknown? The secret might be in the timing of the disaster. April 1865 was one of the most momentous months in American history: Lee’s surrender to Grant, Johnston’s surrender to Sherman, the end of the war, the assassination of President Lincoln, the killing of Lincoln's assassin, and the release of all the North’s and South’s prisoners of war, who then began trying to find their way home across broken land.

After five years of death that touched virtually every family in the nation—both North and South—perhaps Americans simply could no longer process the horror...and that even the joys of the end of the war and their loved ones finally returning home should be punctuated with such profound tragedy.

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“Ship of the Damned” was first published on Facebook and NotesfromtheFrontier.com on June 8, 2021


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