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SULTANA: Greed and tragedy on the Mighty Mississippi

Harper's Weekly
Artistic rendition of the "Sultana" disaster of April 1865.
Fertile Ground Compost Service
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OKLAHOMA CITY – Buried beneath a soybean field near the Arkansas town of Marion, near the Mississippi River, lies the wreckage of a paddlewheel steamboat named the Sultana, which has the distinction of being the boat that was involved in the worst maritime disaster in American history.

The American Civil War had just ended, and Union soldiers who had been prisoners of the Confederacy, were crammed onto the Sultana, which had a capacity of only 376 passengers. But because these soldiers needed to be sent north – to Cairo, Illinois – from Vicksburg, Mississippi.

Soon after learning of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln on April 15, 1865, the captain of the Sultana, J. Cass Mason of St. Louis, was approached by Lt. Col. Reuben Hatch, who was Vicksburg’s chief quartermaster. He had a deal. The American government was willing to pay $5 per enlisted man and $10 per officer “to any steamboat captain willing to take the group north.”

As author Gene Eric Salecker notes in his book Disaster on the Mississippi: The Sultana Explosion, Lt. Col. Hatch knew Capt. Mason needed money, and so the corrupt and incompetent Hatch suggested that if he could guarantee the greedy captain a full load on the Sultana of 1,400 Union prisoners, Mason would guarantee to give Hatch a kickback in those chaotic final days of the Civil War.

Mason, in a fit of greed and having no concern about the lives of those aboard the Sultana, he agreed to Hatch’s scheme of the offered bribe.

So, the Sultana, after a quick jaunt to New Orleans, returned to Vicksburg, crammed the Union prisoners aboard the troubled steamboat and paddled northward, past Memphis, until about 2 a.m. on April 27, 1865, when the stressed, two-year old steamboat, which had too little water in the boilers finally succumbed to the pressure and exploded, followed immediately by two more boiler explosions. The explosion was so tremendous, it was heard many miles away and the flames lit up the cold spring night. 

Over 1,200 Union soldiers died, along with Capt. Mason, as the wreck burned and sank and those who didn’t immediately die in the explosions, drowned in the icy waters of the Mississippi, some four miles from Memphis. And approximately 963 people did survive the disaster, with a number gathering annually over the years, forming a Sultana Survivors' Association, with the final survivors - Private Jordan Barr, who served in the 15th Michigan Volunteer Infantry Regiment and Private Charles M. Eldridge of the 3rd Tennessee Cavalry - dying at advanced age in 1938 and 1941, respectively.

This disaster sparked a number of books over the years, including a moving song by the St. Louis-based band Son Volt, "Sultana," which was on their 2009 album American Central Dust was a spare song sung, written and performed by Son Volt's Jay Farrar, a troubadour in the vein of Woody Guthrie.

In my 2009 review of American Central Dust, I wrote: “The best track, however, is the epic song “Sultana.” The Sultana was a steamboat that was destroyed in an explosion on the Mississippi River at the end of the Civil War in 1865. It was the worst maritime disaster in American history, with as many as 1,800 of the 2,400 passengers dying in the disaster. Farrar, a fan of American history and traditional music, captures the mournful feel of this ship song perfectly.  Sort of a 19th-via-21st century version of  (Gordon Lightfoot's) “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

The Edmund Fitzgerald sank in Lake Superior in a horrific storm in November 1975, a little over 110 years after the Sultana disaster.

TODAY

Due to the ever-changing course of the Mississippi, the Sultana’s final resting place in on land, under the aforementioned soybean field, may soon become a tourist site, according to an Associated Press report from last week – on August 23rd.

Reports the AP: “Project Director Louis Intres tells KATV-TV that plans are in progress to build a 10,000-square-foot, $3 million Sultana Disaster Museum, (with the aforementioned author, Gene Eric Salecker, the museum's acting historical consultant.)

The Marion Advertising and Promotion Commission will contribute $400,000 toward the construction and an additional $75,000 a year for 10 years to help with operation costs. The city commissioned a feasibility study that showed the museum could generate $2.4 million in economic activity and attract up to 40,000 visitors a year.

Red Dirt Report supports this historic effort to have a museum remembering America's worst maritime disaster, or as Jay Farrar noted at the end of his song: "The Titanic of the cold Mississippi was the Sultana.

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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About Red Dirt Report

Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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