NFPA Journal - March/April 2013 - (Page 88)
Death on the River
They survived the Civil War and a Confederate POW camp—but not the SS Sultana
IN THE SPRING OF 1865, after spending months in the notorious
With a load approximately six times its legal capacity, the
Confederate prison camps of Andersonville and Cahaba, all the
Sultana set off for Memphis to pick up more cargo, then crossed
freed Union soldiers wanted to do was to go home. That April,
the river to Arkansas to load coal. In the wee hours of April 27,
they finally got their chance. They boarded the Mississippi River
the ship was again on its way north when the repaired boiler
steamship SS Sultana at Vicksburg, Mississippi, eager to see their
exploded, as did two others. Shrapnel and steam tore through the
families again, some for the first time in years.
deck above the boiler room, killing many passengers outright and
Most never made it home. At 2 a.m. on April 27, about seven
hurling hundreds of others into the frigid waters of the Missismiles north of Memphis, one of the Sultana’s boilers exploded,
sippi. Those who could grabbed anything else that might float and
triggering a deadly chain of explosions and fire. An estimated
jumped to escape the flames that erupted around them.
1,700 people were killed in the incident, making it
the worst maritime disaster in U.S. history—dead- SHRaPNEl and steam tore through the deck above the boiler
lier even than the sinking of the Titanic 47 years
room, killing many passengers outright and hurling hundreds of
later, when slightly more than 1,500 people died.
others into the frigid water.
The SS Sultana, built in 1863 to ply the Mississippi from New Orleans to St. Louis, was designed to carry a
The explosion was heard all the way back in Memphis, and resmaximum of 376, including a crew of 85. When it left New Orleans cuers responded immediately. By the time they arrived, however,
on April 21, it carried between 75 and 100 passengers. The boat
most of the passengers were beyond help. “Boats searched for
landed at Vicksburg on April 23 to take on more passengers and
survivors all morning but stopped looking by midday,” according to
to repair one of its four boilers, which was leaking. When told that
thisweekinthecivilwar.com. “Of the estimated 2,300 passengers,
replacing the boiler would take days, the captain told the boileronly 600 survived.” Despite rumors of sabotage, a board of inquiry
maker to patch it instead and said he would replace it when they
concluded that the explosion was the result of insufficient water in
reached St. Louis.
the boilers. No one was blamed for the tragedy.
The captain also persuaded army representatives to let him
The wreckage of the Sultana lay undisturbed for more than 100
take aboard 2,000 or more newly released Union soldiers, thereby
years as the river flowed over it, changing course every now and
earning the $5 a head that the government was offering to carry
then. In 1982, in a field near Memphis, archeologists unearthed
each former POW north. The soldiers, many weak from disease
blackened planks believed to belong to the ill-fated ship.
and malnutrition, crammed themselves into every available space.
NFPA JOURNAL MARCH/APRIL 2013
Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of NFPA Journal - March/April 2013
NFPA Journal - March/April 2013
In a Flash
Cover Story: Storage Occupancies
Fifty Years of Smoke Detection
Fire Analysis + Research
NFPA Journal - March/April 2013