Titanic vs. Sultana

You’ve heard of the Titanic, yes? Of course you have. Kate and Leonardo made sure of that.

But what about the Sultana—do you know about that one?

Even though it had almost as many people on board when it sank, and as many deaths, the newspapers were instead filled with news of the end of the civil war and the killing of John Wilkes Booth.

1865 photo of the steamship Sultana
1865 photo, taken two days before the steamship sank

I didn’t know about the Sultana until I stopped and read the bronze historical marker on the banks of the Ohio river, while Leda sniffed the grass at its base.

With the Titanic, there was an iceberg to blame, and human hubris. With the Sultana, there was no iceberg, there was a boiler and the human failing was greed.

The Sultana was a steamship built in Cincinnati. It had a carrying capacity of 85 crew and 376 passengers, for a total capacity of 461. When it sank it was carrying 2,137 people, 450% more than it should have had. Most of the 1,960 people aboard were former prisoners of war, Union soldiers going home, weak and sick. Additionally, there were 22 guards, 70 paying passengers, and 85 crew.

On April 27, 1865, at around 2:00 a.m., about seven miles north of Memphis, one of the boilers exploded. Contributing factors:

  • Poor boiler design.
  • Fragile boiler material (Charcoal Hammered No. 1, discontinued after 1879).
  • Faulty boiler repair (hasty repair performed in Vicksburg, Louisiana so the ship could depart in 24 hours with a full load rather than 72 hours with a light load).
  • Dirty Mississippi water used to feed the boilers.
  • Overloading (the US government paid $2.75 per enlisted man and $8.00 per officer).
  • Greed (the captain directed the boiler repair and also paid a kickback to guarantee a full load).

The boiler exploded, the boat burned and sank. Most of those who weren’t killed instantly drowned or died of hypothermia. Those who managed to stay alive and stay afloat screamed as the swiftly moving river carried them past Memphis. They were noticed by the crews of docked steamboats and U.S. warships, who immediately set about rescuing the half-drowned victims. Thanks to the civil war, the Memphis hospitals were excellent and most of those who made it to a hospital survived. Estimates for the death toll are 1,168, 1,238, 1,259 or 1,547—more than the Titanic.

End result: no one was ever held accountable for one of the greatest maritime disasters in US history.

That’s why I wanted to write about it. Because men who fought for the Union army were killed not by the enemy but by the greed of people who were supposed to be taking care of them.

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Chewing the Cud of Good

closeup of swimming pool

Swimming, on what might have been the last hot day of the year, and how good it feels to move in water.

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