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.
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.
|J. Cass Mason|
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.
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|
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|
|Last photograph of the Sultana, overloaded with passengers, before the explosion|
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."
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.
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.
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."
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|
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.
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."
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.