November 9, 2023 at 6:30 pm
On April 27, 1865, a boiler on the Sultana exploded, engulfing the steamship in flames before sinking it into a muddy grave on the Arkansas side of the Mississippi River. The disaster took place about 7 miles north of Memphis in the vicinity of what were then known as Hen and Chickens Islands.
The Sultana, with a legal capacity of 376, was overloaded with Union soldiers recently freed from Confederate prisons in Alabama and Georgia. They were trying to get home to the Midwest after a long march to Vicksburg to board the ship. It is estimated that 1,195 men died in the Sultana, making it the deadliest maritime disaster in US history still to this day.
By comparison, about 1,500 people died on the Titanic, a British ocean liner that sank in the North Atlantic Ocean in 1912. The Sultana was about 1/14th the size of the Titanic.
Until the early 1900s, part of the jack staff of the Sultana could still be seen jutting out of the mud where the ship sank, now, the ship’s remains are 37 feet under a soybean field.
John Fogleman, a retired circuit judge, is president of the Sultana Historical Preservation Society. His ancestors helped save people from the burning Sultana that morning in 1865.