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A Disaster Waiting to Happen

steamboat

April 19, 2018

Why has everyone heard about the sinking of the Titanic, but never heard about the worst maritime disaster in United States history? The explosion of the steamship Sultana on April 27, 1865, killed an estimated 1,800 passengers. Maybe the assassination of President Lincoln (April 14, 1865) and the killing of John Wilkes Booth (April 26, 1865) overshadowed the event.

I did a little reading up on this forgotten piece of Civil War history. Steamship disasters occurred regularly, but the loss of life was so great because the Sultana was built to hold 376 passengers and instead, on this particular trip, it was loaded with over 2,000 people. The fact that the passengers on board were Union soldiers released from prisons in Andersonville, Georgia, and Cahaba, Alabama, made it more of a tragedy. The soldiers survived battles and the harsh conditions of the prison camps only to be killed or injured on their way home. In the overnight hours, while the passengers slept, the boilers exploded near Memphis, Tennessee. Amazingly, rescuers saved about 800 people, but nearly 300 of those wounded died later.

So where can you find more about this disaster or about genealogy records relating to those on the Sultana? You can start with some of MCPL’s databases. Fold3 Library Edition has lists of paroled prisoners on the Sultana as well as lists of those that died, survived, and which survivors were sent to a hospital in Vicksburg, Mississippi. Read first-hand accounts in the American Civil War: Letters and Diaries database or in the book Loss of the Sultana and Reminiscences of Survivors. For those of you history buffs, try The Sultana Saga or Sultana: Surviving Civil War, Prison, and the Worst Maritime Disaster in American History. Most of our ancestors were ordinary people, but they often found themselves in extraordinary circumstances. As we read their stories, we hope to remember the events in history and the people who lived through them.

Jolene C.
Midwest Genealogy Center

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