The tragedy of the “Sultana”
An April 27, 1865 released Union prisoners boarded the steamship Sultana, headed for Cairo, Illinois, hoping it would be the last they saw of the infernal South. The Government was paying the ship’s Captain $5.00 a man, and by kicking back $1.15 to corrupt Union officers to look the other way, the ship’s crew loaded the boat with as many men as would fit. Although the steamer’s boiler had developed a bulge the day before, the Captain opted to cover the bulge with an iron plate rather than lose the two or three days needed for proper repair. An estimated 2,300 POW’s were loaded on board a ship rated to hold 376 people.
At 2 AM on April 27, the repaired boiler exploded, and two others went up soon after, spreading fire quickly through the middle of the ship. Panicked men jumped overboard rather than attempting to fight the fire. The smokestacks collapsed on scores of men. The fire quickly swept toward the stern, and more men jumped into the fast moving Mississippi.
When Union Navy gunboats arrived from Memphis, it was too late for most. Of the 2,500 passengers who left Vicksburg two days earlier, only 600 ultimately survived. The fire, steam, wreckage and river took the lives of 1,900 Americans that day.
The burnt ruin of the Sultana floated down river, and sank ignobly into the deep muck opposite Memphis, where she lies today.
Statement of Ann Annis, survivor, who lost her husband and daughter in the tragedy:
Widow of Lt. Harvey Annis, 51 U.S.C.T.
Being duly sworn testifies as follow:
11 May 1865
I embarked with my husband on board the steamer Sultana at Viksburg on the 24th Ult. My husband was not a paroled prisoner but had resigned. Sometime during the night when both of us were awake, we heard a loud noise, something like the rattling of iron. My husband immediately got up, then looking into the cabin seeing that there was a considerable steam there, and fearing that it would come into the stateroom, he closed the door and tried to open the one leading out to the guards, but this was jammed by something, and someone outside said we are all stove in. My husband then put a life-preserver upon me and one upon himself, and took me and my child to the stern of the boat. He let himself down to the lower deck with the child, and I followed him, but as I was descending the rope a man from above jumped on me and knocked me into the hold of the vessel. From this I was extricated, and my husband, with our child, jumped overboard. I followed as soon as I could but the life-preserver was not placed on me right and I held onto the rudder till I was obliged to let go by the fire.
While I remained there I heard a second explosion which seemed to be made up of three great reports like the explosion of shells or gunpowder. By this explosion there seemed to be a great deal of fire thrown all over the water about the boat to a considerable distance from her. I was obliged to take to a small piece of board and upon this I was saved. Great fear was felt by everybody on account of the large number of passengers and the boat being top heavy. The clerk or mate pointed out to my husband and myuself the sagging down of the hurricane deck in spite of extra stanchions which were put in a great many places. The boat was very much crowded, but the men behaved very well indeed. There was no carousing or quarrelling, and only little moving about. The boat was perfectly quiet at the time of the explosion and was running very smoothly and not fast.