Sultana: Tragedy on the Mississippi

Loss of the Sultana

25 February 2016

The story of the deadliest shipwreck in U.S. history is also a Civil War story.  At 2:00 A.M., on April 27, 1865, the steamboat Sultana, grossly overloaded with liberated Union prisoners, exploded and burned just north of Memphis, Tennessee.  Approximately 1,800 people perished in a tragedy whose story was largely overshadowed by other events surrounding the end of the war and the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. 

 It is a story that deserves to be told.  Compared to the tragedy of Lincoln’s death, and the triumph of the Union victory, the Sultana’s tale of senseless death, greed, corrupt war profiteers, and venal government officials, is as depressing as it is revealing.  Thousands of soldiers who had already survived battle and imprisonment were killed within days of their homecoming because of a confluence of the worst traits of humanity.  The avoidable disaster on the Mississippi certainly stains the triumphal narratives of Union victory.

 It fell to the survivors to tell the tale.  For years their only audience was the small circle of veterans and grieving families touched by the tragedy.  Like other groups of vets they formed an association, and held reunions.  Two distinct groups – one northern and one southern – met periodically in Toledo and in Knoxville. They recounted their memories for each other, and recorded their experiences.  Reverend Chester Berry took down the stories of 134 survivors, and compiled his own research.

 The result was Loss of the Sultana and Reminiscences of the Survivors, a remarkable compendium of primary source stories of this one tragic event.  Few of the big battles of the Civil War have benefited from such a collection of testimony to record the minute experiences of the survivors.  It took not only the tragedy, but the comparative indifference of the public to spur the survivors of the Sultana to make sure that their story was recorded for history.

 Original copies of Berry’s book are quite scarce, and hard to acquire in any condition.  Our copy, while showing signs of wear such as rubbing on the boards and slightly shaken hinges, is still quite bright.  Like the veterans who produced it, it is a survivor of a time and place in Civil War history that some people would have preferred to forget.