Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Explosion of the Sultana, April 27, 1865

The SS Sultana was a Mississippi River steamboat paddle wheeler that exploded on April 27, 1865, in the greatest maritime disaster in United States History.

An estimated 1,600 of Sultana's 2,400 passengers were killed when three of the ship's four boilers exploded and Sultana sank near Memphis, Tennessee.   

The disaster was overshadowed in the press by other recent events.  John Wilkes Booth, President Lincoln's assassin, was killed the day before.  The tragedy took place at a time when the country's attention was fixed on the closing events of its great Civil War: the president had been assassinated and rebel armies were laying down their arms.  In a nation desensitized to death and the enormous casualties of the Civil War battles, 1,600 more did not seem such an enormous tragedy.  More people died in the Sultana disaster than did on the Titanic 47 years later, yet the tragic story is rarely mentioned in history books.

The wooden steamship was constructed in 1863 by the John Litherbury Shipyard in Cincinnati, Ohio, and intended for the lower Mississippi cotton trade.  Registering 1,719 tons,  the steamer normally carried a crew of 85. For two years, the Sultana ran a regular route between St. Louis and New Orleans, frequently commissioned to carry troops.

Under the command of Captain J. C. Mason of St. Louis, Sultana left New Orleans on April 21, 1865, with 75 to 100 cabin passengers, deck passengers, and numerous head of livestock bound for market in St. Louis.  The Sultana 's master and part-owner, Captain J. Cass Mason, was generally respected by his peers but also considered to be reckless. He already had one boat confiscated from him for hauling Confederate contraband and was in serious financial trouble at war's end.

J. Cass Mason
At Vicksburg, Mississippi, the steamship stopped for a series of hasty repairs to the boilers and to take on more passengers. Rather than have a bad boiler replaced, a small patch repair was made to reinforce a leaking area. A section of bulged boiler plate was removed, and a patch of lesser thickness than the parent plate was riveted in its place.  This repair took about one day, whereas a complete replacement of the boiler would have taken about three days.  

Union soldiers who had recently been released Con prison camps were gathered at Vicksburg.  They were loaded on steamboats for the trip to Cairo, Illinois, with the government paying $5 per enlisted man and $10 per officer. That was big money, which led to corruption--steamboat captains kicked back $1.15 to the army officers in charge if they filled the boats with men.  Owners of the steamboats were competing to see who could arrange for the most freed prisoners on their boats. Some company employees bribed army officials in Vicksburg to make sure they got as many passengers as possible.

Brigadier General Morgan L. Smith promised Captain Mason a full load of soldiers for his upriver journey.  Mason got a similar promise from Lieutenant Colonel Reuben B. Hatch,   the chief quartermaster for the Department of the Mississippi and a man whose military record was tarnished by evidence of corruption.  Early in the war, while serving as an assistant quartermaster at Cairo, Illinois, Hatch had been arrested for taking bribes in the purchase of military supplies. The evidence of his guilt was overwhelming, but thanks to his brother, O. M. Hatch — the secretary of state for Illinois and a friend and financial supporter of President Lincoln — Reuben Hatch never appeared before the court-martial tribunal that had been ordered to try him. O. M. Hatch, along with Illinois Governor Richard Yates and Jesse K. Dubois, the state auditor, wrote to Lincoln proclaiming Reuben Hatch's innocence and seeking the president's aid.

In early 1865, a military commission at New Orleans tested Hatch on his knowledge of the duties of an assistant quartermaster general, a position he had held for the previous four years, and found him 'totally unfit' to discharge the duties of that post.  Nonetheless, just ten days after the board released its findings, Hatch was inexplicably made the chief quartermaster for the Department of the Mississippi, stationed at Vicksburg.

More than two thousand men crowded aboard.  With a legal capacity of only 376, Sultana was severely overcrowded. Many of the passengers had been weakened by their incarceration and associated illnesses.  Passengers were packed into every available berth, and the overflow was so severe that the decks were completely packed.

Because they were still being sorted by state unit at the camp, the men who tramped aboard the Sultana hailed mostly from Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee. The first to reach the boat could hear banging from below as repairs were completed on the cracked boiler. A Buckeye private named William Boor convinced his friends to find a spot away from the power plant, warning that if it did explode they would "go higher than a kite." Open space disappeared as the various decks became congested, and still the men came, leading Ohio Sergeant William Fies to mutter that they were being loaded "more like so many cattle than men," while Corporal Erastus Winters likened their experience to "something like a flock of sheep or a drove of hogs." Such was the extra weight that the hurricane deck began to sag and had to be braced with temporary stanchions.

Lt. Harvey Annis
Among the passengers was Lt. Harvey Annis, who along with his wife, Anna, and their seven-year-old daughter, Belle.  Anna Annis had come to Vicksburg to nurse her sick husband; they were now on their way home to Wisconsin, and Anna was worried that, as ill as he was, he might not survive the trip.  Anna also expressed great fear about the large number of men getting on the boat. But the Sultana's chief clerk told her it would be all right, and Lt. Annis, who had just resigned his commission and was eager to get home, agreed.  So the family joined the POWs, except that Lt. Annis paid for a private cabin.

Anna Annis

At 9:00 p.m. on April 24, the Sultana slowly backed away from the wharf at Vicksburg and headed north on the flood-swollen Mississippi River. The enormous weight of the passengers and cargo on the decks of the steamer worried her crew.  William J. Gambrel, the first clerk and part owner of the Sultana warned that any sudden movement by the prisoners could cause the decks to collapse. He also expressed concern that too many men crowding to one side of the deck could result in the boat capsizing.

Sultana departing Vicksburg
That horrifying scenario almost played out when the Sultana docked briefly at Helena, Arkansas. Word quickly spread among the passengers that a photographer was setting up his camera on the west bank of the river. The excited soldiers, hoping to be caught on film, quickly moved to the port side of the boat, causing the Sultana to list dangerously. The resulting photograph, however, is the last picture taken of the steamer, as well as of many of those on board.

Last photograph of the Sultana, overloaded with passengers, before the explosion
The boilers gave way when the steamer was 7 to 9 miles north of Memphis at 2:00 am.  The enormous explosion flung some of the passengers on deck into the water, and destroyed a large section of the ship. Hot coals scattered by the explosion soon turned the remaining superstructure into an inferno, the glare of which was visible as far away as Memphis.

Scores died in an instant. Others found themselves buried under flaming debris or blown overboard into the cold, dark river. "Everywhere steam was escaping, women were screaming, soldiers and crew cursing and swearing, horses neighing, mules braying, splinters flying," recorded an Ohio man, Nicholas Karns. Most of the pilot house was gone; the smokestacks shuddered and then toppled, one forward, the other backward. The entire midsection was a mass of flames driven by a stiff wind toward the stern. "I saw many men mangled," added another Buckeye, Peter Roselot, "some with arms and legs broken, others scalded and screaming in their agony."

The "first thing that I knew or heard was a terrible crash, everything seemed to be falling," recalled a Michigan soldier. "A piece of iron glanced my head," added Kentuckian Simeon Chelf, "and in the excitement I thought the rebels had fired a battery on us." An Ohioan declared: "Not more than three feet from where I was lying was a hole clear through the boat. It seemed as if the explosion of the boilers had torn everything out from top to bottom."

"All was confusion," attested an Ohio man, William H. Norton, adding that from the lower deck he could see that the "men were jumping into the river by the hundreds." There they fought the flood-swollen Mississippi and each other. "I saw at least twenty drown at once," said Indiana cavalryman Stephen M. Gaston. "As fast as one would feel he was drowning he would clutch at the nearest, and I believe many a bold swimmer was drowned that night who could have saved himself if alone."  Tennessean Andrew Perry, clinging to the boat, watched with astonishment as a man and mule battled for a floating piece of the wheelhouse. "The mule would get its front feet on the raft and [the man] . . . would knock it off with a club. It would come again, for several times the mule almost capsized the craft. I don't think I ever saw a more earnest fight. The mule finally gave up or was killed." 

Ann Annis, her husband and daughter, Belle, were asleep in their cabin when they heard a loud noise that sounded like the clanking of metal. Harvey noticed steam was rapidly filling the cabin. He put on his life jacket and one on Ann (but not correctly, and later it slipped off.) Carrying his daughter, he led Ann to the stern and tied a rope from the boat's bridge. He put the child on his back and descended into the cold, fast-moving flood waters of the Mississippi, instructing Ann to follow. She started down the rope when a man from the upper deck jumped into the water, hitting Ann and knocking her off the rope and into the hold of the boat. She was extricated from there and once more, went down the rope. 

When she got into the water she watched, helplessly, as her husband and daughter slipped under the icy waters as they were swept away from her. 

By Ann's account (deposition) she and several others were, at one point, holding onto a part of the rudder, but forced to let go because of flames. Ann was burned from the back of her both hands up to her shoulders.

The first boat on the scene was the southbound steamer Bostonia II which arrived at about 3:00 am, an hour after the explosion, and overtook the burning wreck to rescue scores of survivors. 

The hulk drifted to the west bank of the river, and sank at around dawn near the tiny settlement of Mound City near present-day Marion, Arkansas.  Other vessels joined the rescue, including the steamer Arkansas, Jenny Lind, Essex, and the Navy sidewheel gunboat USS Tyler, manned by volunteers.  A sailor aboard the USS Tyler wrote in the ship's log that "'of all the sounds and noises I ever heard that was the most sorrowful; some cursing, calling for help; and shrieking. I will never forget those awful sounds."

Passengers who survived the initial explosion had to risk their lives in the icy spring runoff of the Mississippi or burn with the ship.  Many died of drowning or hypothermia. Some survivors were plucked from trees along the Arkansas shore. 

The survivors began singing marching tunes. Holding onto their driftwood rafts, they looked like frogs--some men noticed this and began croaking.

Bodies of victims continued to be found downriver for months, some as far as Vicksburg. Many bodies were never recovered.  Sultana's officers, including Captain Mason, were among those who perished.

Ann Annis was picked up by a Navy gunboat coming from Memphis. She was taken to the Gayoso hospital in Memphis where she was treated for shock, burns and other injuries.

Sergeant William Fies of the 64th Ohio Infantry, in describing the grim sights in one of the hospital wards, wrote that he "was placed in a ward with quite a number who were severely scalded, or otherwise badly injured, and such misery and intense suffering as I witnessed while there is beyond my power to describe. The agonizing cries and groans of the burned and scalded were heartrending and almost unendurable, but in most cases the suffering was of short duration as most of them were relieved by death in a few hours."

About 500 survivors, many with horrible burns, were transported to hospitals in Memphis. Up to 300 of them died later from burns or exposure. Final estimates of survivors were between 700-800.

No exact death toll is known. Estimates range from 1,300 to 1,900. The official count by the United States Custom Service was 1,547.  Many of the dead were interred at the Memphis National Cemetery.  

Many Northern newspapers immediately blamed the tragedy on sabotage, a possibility discounted by all of the various military investigations.  Headlines in the Memphis Daily Appeal screamed: 'IT WAS MURDER!'  And the newspaper was correct. There was no military reason requiring or justifying the placement of so many soldiers aboard the Sultana. The real cause of the disaster was not the failure of the patch on the boiler, but the conspiracy of greed at Vicksburg that put the quest for profits above the safety of the soldiers who thought the horrors of war were behind them forever.

Newspaper Article from Philadelphia Inquirer, April 29
The official cause of the Sultana disaster was determined to be mismanagement of water levels in the boiler, exacerbated by the fact that Sultana was severely overcrowded and top heavy. As the steamship made its way north following the twists and turns of the river, Sultana listed severely to one side then the other. Sultana's four boilers were interconnected and mounted side-by-side, so that if the ship tipped sideways, water would tend to run out of the highest boiler. With the fires still going against the empty boiler, this created hot spots. When the ship tipped the other way, water rushing back into the empty boiler would hit the hot spots and flash instantly to steam, creating a sudden surge in pressure. This effect of careening could have been minimized by maintaining high water levels in the boilers. 

The official inquiry found that Sultana 's boilers exploded due to the combined effects of careening, low water level, and a faulty repair to a leaky boiler made a few days earlier.

At the conclusion of all the military investigations, Reuben Hatch and Speed was ordered to appear before a court-martial tribunal. The charges against Hatch stemmed from the fact that he had selected the Sultana to transport the prisoners.  Hatch never stood before a court-martial tribunal. On June 3, 1865, he was relieved of his duties as chief quartermaster of the Department of the Mississippi.  A few weeks later, he boarded the northbound steamer Atlantic, carrying $14,490 in government money.  During the voyage, the safe of the Atlantic was robbed.  The thief was caught before the boat reached St. Louis, and all the money was recovered, except for more than $8,500 in government funds Hatch claimed he had placed in the safe. He was found to have violated military regulations by removing the funds from the Department and was held personally liable for the loss of the money. Thus, Hatch's career ended as it began, in controversy.

In the end, no one was held responsible for the worst maritime disaster in American waters. 

Except for those directly involved, the Sultana disaster passed quickly from the headlines.
Ann Annis stayed at least a month in Memphis, and one of her letters says that she stayed six weeks, going from morgue to morgue, viewing hundreds of bodies, searching for that of her husband and daughter.  Newspaper articles in a Memphis paper told of Ann's plight and pleaded for help for her. They stated that the Sisters of Charity collected clothes and gave them to Ann. The crew on another boat collected and gave Ann Annis one thousand dollars, which was a very large sum at that time.

Ann Annis was widowed three times: each husband drowned. Ann survived two shipwrecks in which she lost husbands.  Her first two husbands were sea captains. She applied over and over again for pension money for her and her dependent children, but they were refused because discharge orders had been signed before Harvey was killed.  The government refused the pension payments, saying Harvey Annis was not in the service at the time of his death and therefore should not receive any money. She fought this for seven years.  Eventually she did get the pension ($17 per month,) but only by a special act of Congress. 

In 1888, a St. Louis resident named William Streetor claimed that his former business partner Robert Louden, made a deathbed confession of having sabotaged Sultana by a coal torpedo.  Louden, a former Confederate agent and saboteur who operated in and around St. Louis, had the opportunity and motive to attack Sultana and may have had access to the means. Supporting Louden's claim are eyewitness reports that a piece of artillery shell was observed in the wreckage. Louden's claim is controversial, however, and most scholars support the official explanation.

Shortly before his death, Sultana passenger James H. Kimberlin expressed resentment toward his country when he wrote: "The men who had endured the torments of a hell on Earth, starved, famished from thirst, eaten with vermin, having endured all the indignities, insults and abuses possible for an armed bully to bestow upon them, to be so soon forgotten does not speak well for our government or the American people."

Sultana Survivors 

An East Tennessee Sultana survivors' group met annually on April 27 (the anniversary of the disaster) until 1928, when just four survivors remained. Then on March 4th, 1931 the last survivor, Pleasant M. Keeble, died at the age of 85.

No national memorial was ever created, but monuments and historical markers to Sultana and its victims have been erected in many sites in the mid-west.

No comments:

Post a Comment