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Episode 103 Disaster on the Mississippi Tragedy of the SS Sultana

The worst maritime disaster in US history occurred on April 27, 1865. Overshadowed by the end of the Civil War and assassination of President Lincoln, the death of nearly 1800 souls was not front page news and conspiracy theories of how the ship went down were rampant 

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Throughout history there have been significant events overshadowed by larger events.

Well known 20th century writers, C.S. Lewis and Aldous Huxley died on the same day in 1963. Their status in the literary world and the coincidence of their passing on November 22nd of that year is the kind of story that would have garnered a lot of attention. Another story captivated the world on the same day…the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. 

In the spring of 1865, a maritime disaster on the Mississippi River was overshadowed by greater tragedy and an unsettled nation. On April 27th the steamboat Sultana exploded on the Mississippi River, seven miles north of Memphis, Tennessee.

This was the worst maritime disaster in US history…with an estimated 1800 lives lost as a result of the explosion. A majority of passengers on board were paroled Union soldiers who had survived Confederate POW camps in Georgia and Alabama and were being transported home.

The news of the disaster was overshadowed by events that captivated a nation in mourning.

The civil war had officially ended on April 9th…at the cost of nearly 700,000 lives.

President Lincoln had been assassinated.

The day before the Sultana disaster, John Wilkes Booth, the man who killed Lincoln and fled, had been tracked down and killed in Virginia.  

The circumstances surrounding the Sultana tragedy and the death of so many men who had made it through the Civil War and were finally heading home to their families…well…it was lost amidst a nation in chaos.

Episode Photos

Tintype of the Sultana taken at Helena, Arkansas on April 26, 1865, a day before she was destroyed. A large crowd of paroled Union prisoners are packed tightly together on the steamboat’s decks. Image: Public Domain
Formal portrait of a Captain James Mason, 1864. Image: UW-La Crosse Historic Steamboat Photographs
Painting of the Sultana in flames. Sultanadisastermuseum.org
Sultana survivors probably from the 3rd Tennessee Cavalry, c. 1920, probably taken in Knoxville, Tennessee. Image: Sultana Association Facebook

Episode Sources

Sultana Disaster Museum sultanadisastermuseum.com

The Sultana Association of Descendants and Friends thesultanaassociation.com

Sultana: A Tragic Postscript to the Civil War. American History Magazine. August 1998

Surviving the Worst: The Wreck of the Sultana at the End of the American Civil War. Mississippi History Now. October 2009

The Shipwreck That Led Confederate Veterans To Risk All For Union Lives. NPR News. April 27, 2015

This Civil War Boat Explosion Killed More People Than the ‘Titanic’. Smithsonian Magazine. April 17, 2017Why Nobody Remembers America’s Worst Maritime Disaster. History. August 31, 2018

Episode Music

Waiting Alone in the Dust by Lobo Loco. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0

Virtues Instrumenti by Kevin MacLeod. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Source: http://incompetech.com

Theme Song “Dark & Troubled” by Pantherburn. Special thanks to Phillip St Ours for permission for use.