Gulf Coast Shipwrecks

The Sultana Disaster

Steamer Sultana ablaze on the Mississippi
(Click image for larger view)

The steamer Sultana fire was one of the worst passenger boat disasters in American history. The side-wheel vessel burned on the Mississippi River north of Memphis, Tennessee on the night of April 26/27, 1865, with the loss of some 1,700 lives. Although the Sultana is not technically a Gulf Coast Shipwreck, we have included the story here because it is an important part of Civil War history, with ties to the Mississippi River and the Gulf Coast. 

It all happened in late April 1865, shortly after President Lincoln's assassination. The Civil War had just ended, and tens of thousands of prisoners were being released from prison camps (both North and South) and heading home. Vicksburg, Mississippi became a major repatriation center for Union prisoners just released from nearby prison camps. About 2,000 of those prisoners arrived in Vicksburg seeking river transportation back to their homes in the north. Most of these men were gaunt, sickly and worn out from their prison experience. And most of them would end up traveling north on the river steamer Sultana

The Sultana left New Orleans on April 21st and headed north with a normal complement of passengers. The vessels official capacity was 376 passengers. When she reached Vicksburg on the 24th, her boilers were leaking badly and some quick repairs were made. Meanwhile, she took on a stampede of passengers, probably 2,300 men or so, then head upstream again. Over the next two days she made several more scheduled stops before docking in Memphis in the late afternoon of the 26th. On that stop, more quick boiler repairs were made and the vessel headed north again around midnight. 

About 2 hours above Memphis, with most of the passengers asleep, one of the boilers exploded with a huge blast that partially destroyed the vessel and set it ablaze. Many passengers were killed or burned by the explosion and subsequent fire, and the survivors were forced to jump overboard. Rescue boats arrived from Memphis within hours and saved many people, but the loss of life that night was terrible. 

For more information on the Sultana disaster, check out the following links... 
Death on the Dark River 
History Detectives Special Investigation - Civil War Sabotage? (a 1-hour video at

Below are some pictures and information on the Sultana disaster
(Click on the images for larger views)

SultanaDepartsFromVicksburg-MS-VicksburgRiverfrontMurals.jpg (118841 bytes) Sultana-Helena-Arkansas-27April1865.jpg (46789 bytes) sultana-Currier-and-Ives.jpg (86797 bytes)
Boarding the Sultana
at Vicksburg, MS
(Vicksburg Riverfront Murals)
Sultana departing 
from Helena, AR
severely overloaded
Sultana ablaze
north of Memphis
(Currier & Ives print)
sultana.jpg (247407 bytes) sultana4-nyt-02may1865.jpg (65325 bytes) SultanaMonument-Marion-Ark.jpg (141983 bytes)
The terrible scene
on the water
Report on the disaster
from the New York Times
Monument to the disaster
at Marion, AK


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