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Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Sinking of the Sultana by Phyliss Miranda

Seeds left by tidbits of history frequently germinate into story ideas. I love to find an obscure fact, nurture it and watch it grow. Today's blog is an example of such seedling.

Do you know what the worst maritime disaster in U.S. history is? If you answer the Titanic, you're wrong. It was the sinking of the state of the art steamboat The Sultana on April 27, 1865. Few people know this because it was forced to the back pages of newspapers, buried in history by the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.   

Vicksburg had turned into a great repatriation center, and on April 24th, 1865, some 2,134 Union soldiers hitched a ride on The Sultana when it docked. Jubilance abounded. Peace was at hand. The war was over, but it had left its nasty mark on ruined levees and dikes. The Mississippi stood at flood stage with foaming water reaching over the banks. Two days later, near Memphis, 1,800 lost their lives on the mighty Mississippi.

A typical side-wheeler, The Sultana was legally registered to carry 376 passengers, but she carried six times that number at the time of the disaster. Aboard were 2,300 men, women, and children, including weary Union soldiers who had survived the ravages of war and the horrors of prison life and were looking forward to reuniting with their families.

Of interest, The Sultana had been contracted by the U.S. government to transport former POW's back home to the north and received $5 per man. Due to the bribery of army officers and the extreme desire of the former POWs to get home, corruption ensued with the ship captains giving a kickback of $1.15 to the army officers in charge if they filled the boats with soldiers. Not unlike Andersonville Prison, men were packed in so tightly they could barely find a place to stand, much less enough room to sleep. The exact number will never be known because at some point the army officers stopped logging in soldiers, simply allowing them to board.

In the wee hours of April 27th, an explosion in the ship's boilers blew into a ball of flames, sending scalding steam, shrapnel and a shower of flaming coals into the night. Fire raged for 20 minutes until the boat sank. Men floated on debris. Many who couldn't swim or were too weak from being imprisioned to try, drowned in the cold black water. Some were trapped beneath debris and couldn't escape the fire. With dawn, came the scene of badly burned and unclothed passengers dotting the shores of the Mississippi, both dead and alive. Bodies of some victims were found for months downriver, while others were never recovered. Once enemies, the people of Memphis took the injured victims to heart and forged bonds because of the tragedy.

History held for years that the explosion was simply malfunction of a poorly repaired boiler; however, some historians contradict the premise. There was an official inquiry; yet no in-depth investigation. One theory: While the ship docked at Memphis it took on coal. A relentless boat-burner, Robert Louden, made a deathbed confession that he sabotaged The Sultana with a coal torpedo. Louden had both motive and opportunity to attack the boat, plus he was friends with Thomas Edgeworth Courtenay, the inventor of the coal torpedo. A coal torpedo was easily made from a hollow iron casing filled with explosives covered in coal oil and dust, making it look like any other lump of coal to the naked eye. The bomb was widely used during the Civil War. Unbeknownst to anyone, when shoveled into the firebox, the explosion would have damaged the boiler, rendering the engines inoperable. Consequently, the compromised boiler, under high steam pressure, would explode, scattering burning coals over the deck. A saboteur would only have to place the torpedo in the coal supply on land and never have to step foot on the targeted vessel.

Louden's claim was supported by a piece of artillery shell in the wreckage. Eyewitnesses confirmed that the explosion of the boiler was secondary to the explosion of the coal box due to flaming coals that rained down on the deck. Louden's confession is controversial at best and many books have been written on the theories. Historians are divided on whether the explosion was an accident or sabotage.

Ironically, in Memphis some healthy soldiers were saved because they debarked to help unload the hogsheads of sugar in order to earn a tad of money. Excited to be free, many wandered off to see the sights and missed their ride up the Mississippi. They lived to tell stories of the ill-fated Sultana. One can't help but wonder what this handful of shore-going soldiers who missed their boat at Memphis thought afterwards.

Like these survivors, has a last minute change of plans made a difference in your life? Or maybe led to an opportunity?


  1. What a terrible story Phyliss. How awful for those poor passengers. And how very lucky were the men who 'missed the boat' I bet they thanked whatever deity they believed in every day thereafter! Thank you for telling us about this.

  2. Great blog, Phyliss! Very interesting but so sad that so many people died in the explosion just trying to get home to their loved ones. The last minute decision that I made that changed things for me was deciding to attend the Romance of America Conference in Anaheim, CA two years ago. It was there that I spoke with an editor from Sourcebooks Publishing. That led to a three book contract. And that put me back into the game. Next January, Book One of my series The Bachelors of Battle Creek will arrive in bookstores and online. That same conference totally changed things for you also. It cost an arm and a leg deciding to go at the last moment but it changed our lives.

    Wishing you the best of everything. Looking forward to the release of your second book soon!! Yay!!

  3. Wow, great stuff. Tragic history but at least some escaped. I don't think I have ever had a "last-minute change of plans that meant anything but we did have a "road not taken" . A year after my student teaching, that high school wanted to hire me...but Hubs and I decided to stay in, you know. We had just gotten engaged and did talk about going to Colorado and him getting on a fire department. Now, after visiting Colorado last fall and having so many wack-job relatives, we look back and wonder LOL.

    Enjoyed the post, Phyliss. Hugs...

  4. I love posts like this, Phyliss. It makes you ponder about "the road not taken" and that there must be a reason for the way things happen in our lives. I've had two things like that that happened that I can readily recall--one was being offered a job I coveted with the FAA as an air traffic controller, and turning it down. My fiancé-now-husband also worked for the FAA and we'd been going through a rough time in our relationship. I knew if I took that job and we were separated for however long it took us to get the same place of duty it would be the end of our relationship. We needed to be together RIGHT THEN to work things out. I turned it down. Another time was when Gary and I were singing together at a lot of different venues in WV. I met an older lady who was very well connected in Nashville. She offered me a chance to go to Nashville and be introduced to "everyone", promising me she just knew it would "work out for you." That was a time when my self doubt did me a favor. I don't believe I would have lasted in that kind of a life. I'm pretty introverted, deep down. LOL

    Great post. I didn't know about this--learned something new today!

  5. I had run across information about the Sultana, but never dug any deeper. Thank you so much to taking the time to research and tell the rest of the story. It was such a sad and joyous time in the country and this story typifies that so well. Happiness combined with tragedy. Thank you again. Doris

  6. Phyliss, what a FANTASTIC post! I'm curious: What was Louden's supposed motive? Southern sympathizer? Involved with the plotters in Lincoln's assassination?

    I'm like you: Sometimes an out-of-the-way historical tidbit will take over my thoughts until I figure out a story that incorporates some aspect of the tidbit. Glad this one sparked inspiration for you! I can't wait to read what you did with it. :-)


  7. You're absolutely right, Phyliss, I would have thought the Titanic was the largest maritime disaster in history. Perhaps Louden didn't think the Yankee soilders suffered enough in prison and decided to just kill them. Not much of a human being to kill them or the women and children on board. I really hate it for the men who finally got a chance to get back home after all they'd been though.
    Great post, Phyliss. Very interesting information.

  8. Really interesting post, Phyllis. Thanks for sharing.

    I guess my moments are like Cheryl's--forks-in-the-road, where a choice must be made. I chose graduate school in Pittsburgh (over staying in AZ with a professor I liked) because I needed and wanted to be near my husband (then boyfriend). If I hadn't gone, we would've likely broken up.


  9. I love this kind of fact, I've also been gathering historical data and tidbits on the Sultana! Tragedies like this need to be recounted and passed on.....Thank you. Enjoyed your post very much.