Discover the Greatest Mississippi River Disaster (1,800 lost their Lives)

Written by Lev Baker
Published: January 6, 2023
© Thomas W. Bankes/Cowan's Auction_Public Domain – License / Original
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Have you ever heard of the greatest Mississippi River disaster? It is otherwise known as the destructive explosion of the Sultana boat in April 1865. This steamship, designed to carry a maximum load of only 376 passengers, was packed with around 2500 people. Most of them were Union soldiers — recently released from Confederate prisons — as well as hundreds of civilian travelers. During the voyage, the steam boilers suddenly exploded near Memphis!

Despite frantic efforts from the crew, 1800 individuals tragically lost their lives that day. Local citizens who had heard the loud blast tried desperately to help extinguish a fast-spreading fire, but not everyone could be saved.

This tragedy came at the end of an already tragic time in American history, the Civil War. We’ll look at what caused it, how many people perished, and why this incident has been largely forgotten throughout history. This article uncovers one of the deadliest, and most overlooked, catastrophes in history!

Where and How Did it Happen?

Sultana memorial
Passengers struggled to survive by jumping into the icy river along the Arkansas shore. A plaque dedicated to the victims now stands in Ohio.

©Chris Light/CCbySA4.0 – License

The Sultana steamboat disaster occurred on the Mississippi River in the United States, near Memphis, Tennessee. Despite its staggering death-toll and ranking as one of the worst maritime disasters in history, this event is often overlooked.


At around 2:00 AM, the boat’s boilers exploded without warning. This powerful release of steam tore through the crowded decks above and completely destroyed the pilothouse. The deck collapsed and caught fire, turning the remaining superstructure into an inferno. Many passengers were killed in the blast or drowned as they tried to escape the burning vessel.

Those who survived the initial explosion panicked and raced for the safety of the water. However, their weakened condition made it difficult for them to swim to shore. Whole groups of people went down together as they struggled to escape the burning boat.

Rescue Attempts

Passengers fought for their lives as the Sultana steamboat burned and sank on the Mississippi River. Some escaped the burning vessel by jumping into the icy river; others clung to debris or semi-submerged trees along the Arkansas shore. As they struggled to survive, they called out for help, hoping to be rescued by passing boats.

Fortunately, several vessels answered their calls for help and began rescuing survivors. The southbound steamer Bostona arrived about a half hour after the explosion and rescued scores of people. Additionally, the steamers Silver Spray, Jenny Lind, and Pocahontas all acted quickly to help. The navy ironclad USS Essex and the sidewheel gunboat USS Tyler also joined the rescue effort.

Despite these efforts, many people died in the disaster, either from the explosion, drowning, or hypothermia. Bodies of victims continued to be found downriver for months. Most of Sultana’s officers, including Captain Mason, were among those who lost their lives in the tragedy.

The Aftermath

Around 786 people were rescued from the frigid spring water. Many of those rescued were suffering from scalds, broken bones, exhaustion, and hypothermia. Tragically, only a few of the 50 women on board survived the disaster, and none of the children survived.

The victims’ bodies were placed in pine coffins and laid along the waterfront. However, as the river was at flood stage and running fast, most of the bodies were never even recovered. In fact, bodies were reported floating in the river days after the explosion, hundreds of miles downstream.

As soon as the Sultana disaster occurred, the U.S. government began investigating the cause of the explosion and who was responsible for overcrowding the steamboat. After examining the evidence, it was determined that the excessive steam pressure, along with the faulty boilers and insufficient water were the primary factors contributing to the explosion.

Although the possibility of sabotage was initially considered, it was eventually ruled out. The presence of scorching on the inside of the surviving boiler indicated that the boat had operated with too little water. Ultimately, the investigation concluded that the disaster was a tragic accident and not the result of any malicious intent.

Possible Causes Of The Disaster

It is believed that the Sultana disaster was caused by the explosions of three boilers. The Sultana was a wooden-hulled steamboat with four boilers, which produced steam to power the vessel’s engines. The boilers were fueled by wood or coal. They were under immense pressure to generate the steam needed to move the overloaded boat.

If a boiler was not properly maintained or if it was overloaded, it could explode, causing severe damage and injury.

Alternative Theories

A few alternative theories have been proposed to explain the Sultana steamboat disaster. Some historians believe that the explosion may have been caused by a design flaw in the Sultana’s boilers, which made them prone to failure under certain conditions.

Others have suggested that the disaster may have been caused by a coal fire that ignited one of the boilers. Others say there may have been a problem with the fuel supply.

People have also speculated that the disaster was caused by a combination of factors, including overcrowding, poor maintenance, and high speed.

It is also possible that the cause of the Sultana disaster was sabotage or an act of terrorism. Some historians believe that the explosion may have been an intentional attack by Confederate sympathizers or other individuals who opposed the Union. However, there is no conclusive evidence to support this theory, and the exact cause of the disaster remains a mystery.

Despite these theories, the precise cause of the Sultana disaster remains unknown. We will likely never know for sure what happened that fateful day on the Mississippi River.

Lack Of Accountability

Despite the terrible loss of life in the Sultana steamboat disaster, no one was ever held responsible for the tragedy. Captain Frederic Speed, a Union officer who sent 1,953 paroled prisoners to board the Sultana, was initially charged with gross overcrowding. Still, the Judge Advocate General of the United States Army later overturned the guilty verdict. He said there was a lack of evidence linking Speed to the disaster.

Captain George Williams, who had placed the men on the boat, was a regular Army officer. The military refused to pursue charges against one of their own.

One official reportedly bribed Captain Mason to overload the Sultana with as many passengers as possible. This individual, Captain Hatch, left the service before he could be court-martialed.

Captain Mason, who was ultimately responsible for the overcrowding and faulty repairs on the Sultana, died in the disaster. Shockingly, no one was ever held accountable for the deadliest maritime disaster in U.S. history.

Why Was the Disaster Not Covered in the News?

Indeed, the Sultana steamboat disaster did not receive the level of attention it deserved. It occurred at a time when the country was already dealing with significant events and crises.

At the time of the Sultana disaster, the country was still reeling from the end of the Civil War and the assassination of President Lincoln. These events, along with the surrender of General Robert E. Lee and the pursuit of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, took up much of the nation’s attention. These national events left little room for the steamboat disaster to make headlines.

In addition, the communications infrastructure of the time was not as developed as it is today. This may have made it harder to disseminate news about the disaster to a broad audience.

As a result, the Sultana disaster has not received the recognition it deserves, even today. While significant events were taking place on the East Coast, a tragedy was occurring elsewhere in the country, claiming the lives of many soldiers who had just survived the horrors of war.

Despite the lack of coverage at the time, the Sultana disaster has gained some more recognition in recent years, with more research and attention being paid to the event and its aftermath.

The Sultana Steamboat as of Today

Many other disasters throughout history have resulted in a significant loss of life, and the Sultana disaster remains among the deadliest of them. This significant event had a lasting impact on the parts of the country that received the news.

Over time, the Sultana steamboat became buried under layers of sand and silt, eventually settling on the bottom of the river. In 1982, historian Jerry O. Potter made a significant discovery when he uncovered the remains of the Sultana. Surprisingly, due to the changing nature of the course of the Mississippi River, he found the remains under 32 feet of dry land.

The Sultana remains buried in the Arkansas soybean field today, serving as a poignant reminder of the 1800 lives lost on board.

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Sultana steamboat
The Sultana met it's tragic end shortly after the end of the Civil War.
© Thomas W. Bankes/Cowan's Auction_Public Domain – License / Original

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About the Author

I have been a freelance writer for the past 2 years. I have a huge love of animals and I love building my knowledge of animals through research. I love sea creatures in particular, my favorite being the octopus because of their intelligence, and I mean, come on, what's not to love! I have a rescue boxer named Dante who is the friendliest pup a man could ask for.

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  2. NPR, Available here:
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  4. Encyclopedia of Arkansas, Available here: