An Article Contributed by BonnieBlueFlag
This subject, authored by Hugh Martyr 118th Pa, was initially posted on this site 11.24.06, by the American Civil War Society Ltd, UK. It was, in part, from a semi-monthly newsletter of that group, written in April, 2003.
The sinking of the Sultana is still the largest maritime disaster in American history. It received little attention; also occurring in April 1865--Lee surrendered at Appomattox, Lincoln was assassinated, the manhunt for John Wilkes Booth ended and Jefferson Davis was still at large(5).
The jury is still out on whether the sinking of the Sultana was an accident, therefore preventable, or was it sabotaged by the Confederate Secret Service.
A short background: The Sultana was built in Cinncinati, Ohio in 1863, at 260 ft long it was concidered, " one of the largest and best steamboats ever constructed". It was a side-wheeler and could carry up to 376 passengers including the crew(1), and cargo.
J.C. Mason was one of three investors who purchased the steamboat from it's original owner, and became it's captain and master(1). Financial problems would lead Mason to questionable actions which would threaten the ship.
The Sultana ran a circuit route between St. Louis and New Orleans, ferrying soldiers, civilians, and cargo including tons of cotton, livestock, sugar, etc. The doomed journey began on April 21, 1865 as the Sultana left New Orleans, headed for it's first stop, Vicksburg.
Loading up at Vicksburg
Captain Mason went into downtown Vicksburg looking for passengers. He learned the Union Commander for the Department of the Mississippi, General Dana, had ordered all soon-to-be-paroled Union prisoners at Camp Fisk just 5 miles from town and all hospitalized Union prisoners within the area would be sent northward on privately owned steamboats with the owners receiving $5.00 per enlisted man and $10.00 per officer, from the Federal government(1).
Mason could not pass up this money-making opportunity. He met with two army officers, Brig. Gen. Morgan L. Smith and Lieut. Col. Reuben B. Hatch, who guaranteed Mason there would be enough soldeirs to fill his steamboat by departure time on April 24th(1).
While the boat was tied up at Vicksburg, an engineer made a disturbing discovery; the boilers were badly leaking and determined the boat needed to stay in dock, put out the boiler fires and repair the boilers and machinery(3). Mason pleaded for a quick patch-up job so he could leave port on time; he knew other steamboats were taking on soldeirs and would leave him with fewer passengers. At first the engineer declined, then agreed(1).
Muster rolls of the soldiers arriving by train at Vicksburg were being prepared by Capt. George Augustus Williams, in charge of prisoner exchange and Capt. Frederic Speed, assistant to the adjutant general of the Department of the Mississippi. So eager were the ex-POW soldiers to go home, three trains full of them scrambled on board the Sultana with only two of the trains having completed their muster rolls (1). This is why there is no set number as to how many passengers were on board the Sultana when it left Vicksburg. The number most agreed upon is 2,400(5).
The human load was so great that it was necessary for the crew to install extra supports for the upper decks for fear the sagging floors might collapse(1).
The next day a brief stop was made at Helena, Arkansas to load coal. A photograph was taken of the Sultana and it's passengers, the action of which nearly capsized the boat as the excited soldiers ran to the railings to get in the photo(1).
That evening the Sultana made a four hour stop at Memphis to unload and load cargo and passengers; then a stop at Hopefield, Arkansas for coal(3). It was the 27th of April.
The Mississippi river was above flood stage and the Sultana had to go against strong currents which put an extra strain on the patched up boilers. While steering around a set of islands named "Hen and Chickens" seven miles north of Memphis, it happened.
There was an explosion that instantly tore through the decks above the boilers, flinging live coals and splintered timber into the night sky like fireworks. Scalding water and clouds of steam covered the prisoners who lay sleeping near the boilers. Within 20 minutes of the explosion, the entire superstructure of the Sultana was in ames(6).
Of the estimated 2,400 passengers about the Sultana, the number killed outright or drowned ranges from 1,500 to 1,900. Probably a median figure of 1,700 would be about right.
The explosion was felt in Memphis and the pillar of fire were seen for miles. The USS Grosbeak, the USS Tyler and other steamers on the Memphis waterfront started up river, being led in the dark by the screams and cries of the victums(6).
Between 500 and 700 were rescued, found on both shores of the Mississippi, found clinging to pieces of broken timber and furniture floating down the river, they were found caught up in the reeds and bushes at the rivers edge. One former Confederate soldier in a small boat recued fifteen Union soldiers single-handedly(6).
Within hours, General C. C. Washburn, the commanding officer at Memphis, appointed a commision to investigate the tragedy. The Washburn Commission concluded that insufficient water in the boilers precipitated the explosion. The commission discounted the crowded conditions aboard the Sultana, concluding the evidence fully shows the the "government has tranferred as many or more troops on boats of no greater capacity than the Sultana, with frequency and safety."(1)
Not everyone agreed. General Dana and Brig. Gen. William Hoffman, the U.S. Army Commissary General of Prisoners, each conducted their own investigations. Hoffman was most critical of the militrary's involvement in the tragedy. The shipment of so large a number of troops on one boat was, under the circumstances, unnecessary, unjustifiable, and a great outrage on the troops(1).
There continues a debate regarding the destruction of the steamboat, Sultana. Could it have been sabotage? Was the Sultana the prime target? Was it a personal vendetta? The newspapers could not agree as to the cause.
The first mention of the possibility of sabotage occurred on May 2, 1865, when the Memphis Daily Bulletin reported: "...a witness before the investigative committee swore that he saw the doors of the furnace blow open, just before the explosion." "On Sunday April 30th, Captain William C. Postal found a piece of shell weighing nearly a pound among the bricks near the starboard guard knee. It was much blistered and gave evidence of having been in intense heat."(10)
Another newspaper, the Memphis Argus, reported on May 13th, 1865: "From indications about the wreck and upon examination of the fragments of bodies raised, the idea was (the injuries suffered) were from the effects of a bursting shell. The true reason, as near as can be ascertained from the ocular proof, is that the water was too low in her boiler, her fires too hot, hence the sad calamity."(10)
Destroying Federal property was the aim of many secret operations, some at the direction of the Confederate government, some with it's tacit approval and some that were under little control or no control whatsoever. These were desperate measures necessary to compensate for being out-manned, out-gunned and out-supplied (8). The government's greatest source of ideas for balancing the traditional war effort would come from the public. Therefore, the Confederate Congress provided some incentive.
To help balance the odds in the South's favor, the Confederate Congress, on May 21, 1861, enacted an amendment to their May 6th, 1861 Declaration of War which stated, "...the government of the Confederate States will pay to the cruiser or any private armed vessel commissioned under said act, twenty per centum of the value of each and every vessel of war belonging to the enemy, the value of the armement to be included in the estimate."(2) This helped the fledgling business of privateering.
The amendment had some effect but not enough. In 1862, the Confederate Congress enacted a bounty of fifty percent of the value of any vessel destroyed by means of new inventions. "In the case any person or persons shall invent or construct any new machine or engine or contrive any new method of destroying the armed vessels of the enemy."(8)
This sparked the inventive imagination of Thomas Ethridge Courtenay from Ireland. In 1862 he invented the coal torpedo. It was so successful, the Confederate government authorized The Torpedo Bureau on October 31, 1862 headed by General Gabrial Rains. The department was charged with the production of coal torpedos and various explosive devices including land mines and naval mines.(8)
An anonymous letter to the Times of London in 1875 claimed to give a full description of how the coal torpedoes were manufactured. "Models were taken from polylateral pieces of coal picked at random from a pile, not so large as to require trimming by the fireman before being shoveled into the furnace. After being filled with an explosive, a plus was screwed in, and the torpedo was dipped in a mixture of boiling coal tar, beeswax and coal dust, then placed into a bucket of ice water, which resulted in a coating about three quarters of an inch thick, giving the shell, when the surface gloss had been scraped off, the exact resemblance of a lump of coal, in weight, smell and general appearance. The size and explosive power of the coal torpedo is roughly equivalent to a six pound spherical shot and was capable of exploding in a ship's furnace with sufficient force to send fragments of it's iron casting into the pressurized boiler, triggering a steam explosion."(1) A variation of the coal torpedo was used against river steamers was a piece of wood, hollowed out and filled with gun powder, which could easily be concealed in the fuel piles of cord wood stacked along the river banks and which was capable of producing disaster to the unlucky ship that hoisted it aboard.(8)
The Sultana's destruction would be front page news again 23 years later in 1888. The St. Louis Globe-Democrat ran the following article on May 6th, 1888:
- BLEW UP THE SULTANA
- The Cause of the Horrible Disaster Explained at Last
- Charlie Dale, a St. Louis Painter, Placed a Torpedo in the Coal Bin on the Boat--the Steamer Just Before the Wreck.
- "...The facts in his (Wm Streetor) possession regarding the cause of the Sultana explosion, as related to a Globe-Democrat reporter, yesterday, removes this much discussed subject from the field of speculation, fixes the fearful catastrophe as the result of no accident, but of fiendish design, and locates with much particularity the boss dynamiter and murderer of the age."(10)
The Memphis Daily Appeal ran this article on May 8th, 1888:
- EXPLOSION OF THE SULTANA
- Another Theory of the Cause Advanced by a St. Louis Man.
- St. Louis, Mo. May 7th--"...the survivors at their reunion have recently made a number of statements regarding the affair, but the most sensational story has been told by a resident of the city, William C. Streetor. His statement fixes the explosion as the result of design. He claims that a noted Confederate blockade runner and mail carrier named Robert Louden, better known during the war as Charles Dale, was the author of the terrible disaster."(10)
- William C. Streetor was a Union man, the assistant and chief clerk of the Gratiot Street Prison in St. Louis. This is where he met Robert Louden (Lowden). Louden was arrested several times for mail-running and boat burning. Now he faced the death penalty by a military commission, for spying. Streetor took a liking to Louden, describing him as "..a young, vigorous daredevil, cool and calculating, a remarkable young man who possessed bravery of a certain kind, I think, equal to that of any man who ever lived." (10)
- It was no surprise and no coincidence Louden escaped Gratiot Street Prison in 1864. He returned to St. Louis in 1867 after receiving a pardon from President Andrew Johnson. Louden and Streetor met up again and worked as painters in town.(10)
- It is during this time Streetor claimed, "Louden was drinking heavily one night and made his statement about the Sultana. He told me he had fired no less than half a dozen steamboats on the Mississippi. I asked him in an offhanded way what he knew about the Sultana explosion. Then he told me the story of the torpedo in the coal and, using his own expression, "It had got to be too ticklish a job to set the boat afire and get away from her."(10)
In another account, Louden made a deathbed confession to William Streetor in 1867 to having sabotaged the Sultana by a coal torpedo.(13)
Louden's closest associate did not corroborate his supposed sabotage. Absalom C. Grimes, a partner of Louden in smuggling and boat burning, wrote his memiors after the war but never mentioned the Sultana or Louden's supposed connection with it. When asked about the omission, Grimes is quoted to have said, "Let sleeping dogs lie." (10)
- Sultana's home port was St. Louis
- J.C. Mason, the captain of the Sultana was from St. Louis.
- Mason's wife and family were prominent in the St. Louis area.
- Robert Louden was from St. Louis
- William Streetor was from St. Louis
- Courtenay, the inventor of the coal torpedo was from St. Louis. (16)
Survivors were interviewed and their statements accumulated. Of the 550 survivors, 218 were interviewed. Out of that number only 4 men ever wrote that they believed in the "sabotage theory" and 3 penned their reminiscences after 1888, after William Streetor managed to make his outrageous claims."(10)
By the time William Streetor decided to go public with his claim, Robert Louden had been dead for 21 years, in New Orleans.
"It is inconceivable that this respected veteran should discover the perpetrator of the disaster and then keep the information to himself for more than 20 years."
"Why did he wait so long to break a story about a Confederate mail runner, an arsonist, a murderer, who has been dead since 1867?"(10)
Perhaps it was hero-worship on the part of Streetor, there is also the strong possibility this confession was made under questionable circumstances and Streetor was the only witness to Louden's claim.(10)
We will never know why Streetor decided to tell Louden's story and why he waited 23 years to do so.
Today the Sultana Disaster is being remembered by The Association of Sultana Descendants and Friends. Formed in 1987, it is a loose knit organization whose main goal is the preservation and spreading of the story of the passengers on the ill-fated Sultana. The Association holds annual reunions, publishes a quarterly newsletter and maintains an online mailing list. Members are encouraged to tell the story to schools, civil war roundtables and to their family and friends.
Members have erected assorted markers and monuments, given countless presentations and published a number of articles in newspapers and national magazines. The Association also assists in providing research materials to a handful of documentaries about the Sultana.(14)
In 1982 an archaeological expedition uncovered what is believed to be the hulking wreck of the Sultana. Found 32 feet under a soybean field about 4 miles from Memphis, burned wooden deck planks and timber were dug up. The Mississippi river has changed it's course several times since 1865, leaving the wreck buried on land. (15).
Was the Sultana a victim of an accident or was it sabotaged?
- HistoryNet.com, Sultana: A Tragic Postscript to the Civil War.
- The Sultana Tragedy by Jerry Potter (1992)
- Death on the Dark River--The Story of the Sultana Disaster in 1865. This article originally appeared in American Heritage Magazine, 10 - 1955.
- Repeat of number 2. Mia Culpa.
- Infoplease.com, The Sinking of the Sultana April 27th: Anniversary of America's Worst Maritime Disaster By Borgna Brunner.
- Memphis Archeaological and Geological Society/MAGS Rockhound News. October 2003; Vol. 49, No. 10.
- Deconstructing the Infernal Machine by Thomas Thatcher (no date of article found)
- Confederate Secret Service from Wikipedia
- Suite 101.com / Terror on the Mississippi: The Sultana Disaster by David Moorman, 1.16.2008
- Civil War St. Louis
- Thomas Ethridge Courtenay from Wikipedia
- Repeat of number 9. Mia Culpa
- Gene Salecker's rebuttal to "Sultana: A Case for Sabotage"
- The Association of Sultana Descendants and Friends
- Lakeland Boating / Wreck of the Sultana (no date of article found)
- Jerry O. Potter's book, The Sultana Tragedy