Yesterday’s news

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One hundred and forty-two years ago yesterday the worst shipwreck in America’s history happened. I had never heard of it. The steamboat Sultan exploded then caught on fire and sank just 3-4 miles north of Memphis on the Arkansas side of the Mississippi. Reports from the day say that she registered to carry 376 passengers plus her crew of 85 but on that day was carrying in the area of 2,200. Most of the soldiers on board that day were Union soldiers released from Anderson and Cahaba prisons heading north to their home states. A photograph taken the day before, April 26, 1865, shows soldiers crowded shoulder to shoulder on all three of her decks, 1,547 of them would never make it to their destination. There would be more loss of life on the Sultan than there was on the much larger ocean liner Titanic.

There are two different accounts of why she exploded. The first reason was that there was a problem with the boilers, the number of soldiers on board exacerbating the problem when the Sultan rounded the many corners of the Mississippi causing the boat to list from side to side. Boiler water was forced back and forth from full tank to empty creating too much steam and then exploding. The second account was that a coal bomb, constructed by a confederate soldier, was inserted into the coal pile that would fuel the fire to create the steam. Eventually when it would be shoveled into the fire and the explosion would occur.

The remains of the Sultan have been discovered 30 feet below the surface in an Arkansas soybean field. At the time, 4 years of war, ruined levees and dikes had helped change the path. Add in another 150 years and the Mississippi has changed its path, etching out different areas and allowing others to fill in.

Whatever caused the explosion, the chaos that followed must have been horrifying to see. Men burned, some in the water swimming vainly to shore or whatever floating debris they could find. Other men were still on board the steamboat calling for help and jumping into the water to escape the flames.

There is a list of names of the soldiers on the fated trip of the Sultan on that day. I have noticed several that could be my relatives from the Michigan and Ohio areas. Kentucky, Indiana, Tennessee and West Virginia natives are also included.


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