Wreck of the Sultana | The Worst Maritime Disaster In American History
On April 27, 1865, the steamboat Sultana exploded and sank while traveling up the Mississippi River, killing an estimated 1,800 people.
The event remains the worst maritime disaster in U.S. history (the sinking of the Titanic killed 1,512 people). Yet few know the story of the Sultana's demise, or the ensuing rescue effort that included Confederate soldiers saving Union soldiers they might have shot just weeks earlier.
Constructed of wood in 1863 by the John Litherbury Boatyard in Cincinnati, Ohio, Sultana was intended for the lower Mississippi cotton trade. The steamer registered 1,719 tons and normally carried a crew of 85. For two years, she ran a regular route between St. Louis and New Orleans and was frequently commissioned to carry troops during the American Civil War. Although designed with a capacity of only 376 passengers, she was carrying 2,137 when three of the boat's four boilers exploded and sank near Memphis, Tennessee. The disaster was overshadowed in the press by events surrounding the end of the Civil War, including the killing of President Abraham Lincoln's assassin John Wilkes Booth just the day before, and no one was ever held accountable for the tragedy.
In 1982, a local archaeological expedition, led by Memphis attorney Jerry O. Potter, uncovered what was believed to be the wreckage of Sultana. Blackened wooden deck planks and timbers were found about 32 feet under a soybean field on the Arkansas side, about four miles from Memphis.
The Mississippi River has changed course several times since the disaster, leaving the wreck under dry land and far from the Mississippi River. The main channel now flows about two miles east of its 1865 position.