Episode 45 - Deadlier Than The Titanic

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Presidential trivia: Who was the first president to have a beard while in office?

On April 9, 1865, General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at the Appomattox Court House in Virginia. This surrendered signified the ending of the Civil War and the end of the Confederacy. Five days later, Abraham Lincoln attended a play at the Ford’s Theatre in Washington D.C. where he was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth. Word of the president’s death spread across the nation. Businesses closed, flags flew at half-mast, and those that had just recently celebrated the end of the Civil War now grieved for their dead president.

On April 18, Lincoln’s body was taken to the Capitol rotunda to lay in state for three days. His body was then placed on a train and taken to Springfield, Illinois to be buried. Tens of thousands of Americans lined up along the railroad to pay their respects as Lincoln’s body passed by them.

During this time, Union troops were still searching for John Wilkes Booth and his associates. On April 26, Union soldiers found the farm where Booth was hiding out and surrounded the barn he was staying in. The soldiers set the barn on fire, hoping to flush Booth out, but he stayed inside. A sergeant then saw Booth in the barn with his gun pointed at the soldiers and shot at Booth, hitting him in the neck. Wounded, Booth was then carried out of the burning barn. Booth survived for three more hours before he died. His last words were “Useless, useless” while staring at his hands.

Despite dealing with the unrest that comes with a president being assassinated, the Union and Confederacy still had to deal with all the details that come with ending a war. This included exchanging hundreds of thousands prisoners of war. In total, the Civil war had created over 400,000 prisoners of war. Castle Morgan was created in Cahaba, Alabama as a POW camp to hold Union soldiers. It was 200 by 300 feet and meant to only hold a few hundred soldiers, but before long it was holding thousands of union soldiers. The only source of drinking water was a stream that flowed through the camp, but it soon became polluted since the townspeople of Cahaba also used it for washing and disposing their sewage.

In order to deal with the overcrowding, the Confederacy created another pow camp near Andersonville, George called Camp Sumter and the first prisoners arrived in February of 1864 while it was still being built using slave labor. Because of the inflated price of lumber during the war, Union soldiers had to live in shanties made from scraps of wood and blankets instead of the wooden barracks originally planned for the prison. Like Castle Morgan, there was a creek flowing through the prison, but it too soon became contaminated with human waste. Sumter was meant to hold up to 10,000 men, but within six months of being used, there were over 30,000 POW’s being kept there and by 1865 there were almost 45,000.

There was a severe lack of food as well and many prisoners died of starvation. Those who didn’t die from starvation suffered through scurvy, dysentery, hookworms, and typhoid. When Robert H. Kellogg entered the camp as a prisoner in May 1864 he wrote “As we entered the place, a spectacle met our eyes that almost froze our blood with horror, and made our hearts fail within us. Before us were forms that had once been active and erect; -stalwart men, now nothing but mere walking skeletons, covered with filth and vermin. Many of our men, in the heat and intensity of their feeling, exclaimed with earnestness: ‘Can this be hell?’ ‘God protect us!’” It’s estimated that around 13,000 prisoners died due to the overcrowding and terrible conditions in the Camp Sumter prison.

When prisoner exchanges first began after Lee’s surrender, the Union and Confederacy made a deal to swap prisoners on a one-to-one deal. That was taking much too long though and it was finally authorized to just exchange prisoners without a corresponding match in place. To speed up the process, the United States government offered to pay private steamboat captains $5 for ever enlisted union soldier and $10 for every union officer they were able to ship back into the Union. The steamboats would pick up prisoners that had been transferred to Camp Fisk which was located near Vicksburg, Mississippi on the Mississippi River and then would take them north.

Interested in making money to pay off his debts, Captain J. Cass Mason docked the Sultana in Vicksburg on April 22nd, 1865. The Sultana was 260 feet long, 39 feet wide at the base and 42 feet wide at the beam. The Sultan was able to move up and down the Mississippi used her two side-mounted paddlewheels that were powered by four tubular boilers. Each boiler was 18 feet long and 46 inches in diameter. The tubular boilers were much more efficient than conventional flue boilers when it came to steam per fuel load, however that came with safety tradeoffs. Many of the flues in the tubular boilers clogged easily and even the smallest dip in the water level could cause hot spots in the boilers, which would make the metal weak and increase the chance of the boiler exploding. This was especially dangerous since many steamboats were built out of several layers of lightweight wood covered in highly flammable pain and varnish.

When the Sultana docked in Vicksburg, the crew discovered that one of the boilers had a crack. The Sultana’s engineer decided that unless this was fixed, he would need to lower the pressure in the ship’s system to relieve pressure on the boiler, however this would greatly slow down the Sultana’s speed. The crew had a local mechanic look at the boiler, but the mechanic said that only a total refitting of the boiler could fix it, which would take several days to complete and by that time, it might be too late to get enough prisoners to make the trip worth it. Captain Mason eventually convinced the mechanic to just put a patch over the cracked boiler plate as a temporary fix.

With the boiler kinda fixed, Captain Mason began to load the Sultana with as many soldiers as he could fit aboard. Mason spoke with a Union lieutenant colonel named Reuben Hatch about getting as many prisoners as possible. Hatch had a shady past of taking bribes and selling government supplies during the war and pocketing the profits. Hatch said that he could over-pack the Sultana with prisoners as long as Mason gave him a kick-back of the Unions payment for the prisoners. Sultana was certified to carry 376 passengers plus the crew. When the Sultana left Vicksburg on the night of April 24th, it had 2,300 people aboard, which included 100 paying passengers of men, women, and children, a crew of 85 men, and 22 guards. On top of all of the passengers, there were also 70 to 100 mules and horses, 300,000 pounds of sugar and 90 cases of wine. Room was so tight on the ship that it was almost impossible to even move.

On April 26th, the Sultana made a quick stop in Helena, Arkansas and a local photographer started to take pictures of the boat. So many prisoners went to one side of the boat to wave at the camera that the Sultana almost capsized. The boat then continued northward, making stops in Memphis and Hopefield, Arkansas. At night, many prisoners had to sleep shoulder to shoulder on the deck of the boat with no covering. At 2 am of April 27th, one of the boilers exploded and then almost immediately a second boiler exploded and causes such a loud explosion that it could be heard in Memphis which was 7 miles away at that time. The blast tore a massive hole in the boat that stretched from the Sultana’s bowels all the way to her stern.

Shrapnel from the exploded boilers ripped through the packed groups of prisoners and white-hot coal sprayed across the wooden planks and beams of the boat.

A Michigan soldier aboard the Sultana said the “first thing that I knew or heard was a terrible crash, everything seemed to be falling. A piece of iron glanced my head and, in the excitement, I thought the rebels had fired a battery on us. Not more than three feet from where I was lying was a hole clear through the boat. It seemed as if the explosion of the boilers had torn everything out from top to bottom.” Many on board died instantly, especially those that had been packed near the boilers. Many more were blown into the Mississippi River and were too weak from disease and malnourished to swim to safety and drowned.

A man from Ohio that was aboard said “Everywhere steam was escaping, women were screaming, soldiers and crew cursing and swearing, horses neighing, mules braying, splinters flying.” Another man said “I saw many men mangled, some with arms and legs broken, others scalded and screaming in their agony.” The entire midsection of the boat was overtaken by flames and when a large gust of wind came through, the smokestacks toppled over. Sections of the deck became weakened by the fire and collapsed, trapping and crushing passengers. Those that were still alive had to decide between drowning in the cold Mississippi River or burning to death. A Tennessee soldier said “I saw men, while attempting to escape, pitch down through the hatchway that was full of blue curling flames, or rush wildly from the vessel to death and destruction in the turbid waters below.”

Those that jumped into the river would then come up to the surface trying to grab onto anything they could get their hands on, even if that meant the nearest person and then both of them drowning. Tennessean Andrew Perry said he watched a mule that kept swimming for a floating piece of the wheelhouse. “The mule would get its front teeth on the raft and [the man aboard it] would knock it off with a club. It would come again, for several times the mule almost capsized the craft. I don’t think I ever saw a more earnest fight. The mule finally gave up or was killed.”

Those that were able to keep afloat in the Mississippi were scattered by the current to both sides of the river and downstream. Some were able to hold onto scraps of wood until the washed up ashore and some were snagged by tree branches and were then able to climb up the branches to dry land. The screams of the victims could be heard as they floated past towns and rescuers hopped on their boats and tried to haul in as many survivors as possible. Many of the survivors pulled out of the river were suffering from hypothermia, broken bones, and second and third degree burns.

Eventually the flames on the Sultana died down enough that survivors floating around it were able to climb back aboard and fight off the remaining flames. They were able to find enough unburnt rope to tie off what was left of the Sultana to a clump of trees they were floating past. The fire started to make a small comeback and all those that were alive on the boat had to jump off onto makeshift rafts or into nearby trees.

Finally the fire went out and the Sultana sunk at 9 am, seven hours after the boilers exploded. Rescue efforts kept going throughout the day, though no one was found alive after twelve hours after the explosion. Efforts switched from rescue to body recovery which continued until the second week of May. Some bodies were found as far as 120 miles south of Memphis. Several bodies were never recovered, including that of Captain J. Cass Mason. Around 785 of the boat’s passengers survived the explosion. That brought the total death count to around 1,800 which was almost 300 more than the death toll of the Titanic.

Three different military commissions were tasked with investigating the Sultana disaster. None of the commissions looked too deeply into what happened, concluding that it was an accident. The only officer who was put on trial was Captain Frederick Speed who was charged with neglect of duty leading to the overcrowding. Speed pled not guilty, but several witnesses that he was counting on to testify on his behalf resigned their commissions. Speed was found guilty, but the verdict was eventually overturned by the U.S. Army’s judge advocate general because the passengers didn’t die because the ship was overcrowded, but died because of the faulty boilers.

It was also possibly quickly overturned because no one in the nation really focused on it. One of the deadliest maritime disasters in history simply wasn’t big news because it was overshadowed by the end of the Civil War, Lincoln’s assassination, and the death of John Wilkes Booth who had been killed just a day earlier. Also, the men aboard were mostly enlisted men and none of them were prominent war heroes.

Some of the survivors were able to move on from the disaster and others suffered terrible ptsd and dealt with alcoholism and depression. There was a story of two boys from Indiana named Romulus Tolbert and John Maddox. Romulus and John fought side by side for the Union, ended up in the same Confederate prison camp, were put on the Sultana, survived and then both returned back to their hometown in Indiana. Romulus got married, built a house, farmed, and rarely spoke about the Sultana disaster while John had several failed marriages, couldn’t hold down a job, and suffered through several health problems. The last survivor of the Sultana died in 1936.

Some never accepted that the explosion was an accident, instead it was a Confederate terrorist attack. Some of the survivors believed that when they stopped to load more coal onto the boat, a Confederate spy snuck aboard and placed a bomb near the boilers and destroyed the Sultana as a last act of defiance against the Union. In 1888, a St. Louis newspaper printed an interview with a Confederate saboteur named Robert Loudon that took credit for the Sultana explosion. However, there was never any concrete evidence that Loudon was ever near the Sultana.

Of course the boiler patch job is an easy target to blame, but the engineer testified that there was no loss in pressure right before the explosion. If that’s true, then the explosion was probably caused by the engine requiring maximum steam pressure in order to carry the extremely heavy load against the heavy flood current of the Mississippi. This could have caused one of the boilers to rupture, which in turn would have caused the rupture of the other boilers.

Two more steamboats using tubular boilers also blew up about a year following the Sultana disaster and soon insurance companies stopped covering tubular boilers. By 1866, most steamboat systems had been outfitted with the conventional flue models and the Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company was created to create and maintain safety standards for steamboats.

Presidential Trivia Answer:

In 1860, 11 year old Grace Bedell wrote to Abraham Lincoln while he was campaigning for president and said “I have yet got four brothers and part of them will for you any way and if you let your whiskers grow I will try and get the rest of them to vote for you, you would look a great deal better for your face is so thin. All the ladies like whiskers and they would tease their husbands to vote for you and then you would be President”

Lincoln wrote back “As to the whiskers, having never worn any, do you not think people would call it a piece of silly affection if I were to begin it now?” Nevertheless, Lincoln started growing out his beard soon after and when he was on his way to his inauguration, he visited Grace to show her his beard and said “You see? I let these whiskers grow for you.”


“Abraham Lincoln’s Assassination” article

“Inside Andersonville Prison, the Civil War’s Most Brutal POW Camp” by Katie Serena

“Why Nobody Remembers America’s Worst Maritime Disaster” by Erin Blakemore

“The sinking of the Sultana: A disaster lost in the lingering fog of the Civil War” by Brady Dennis

“Death on The River” by Noah Andre Trudeau

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