THE CIVIL WAR STEAMER SULTANA by John Bowman

The steamer Sultana cleared Memphis up-bound April 26, 1865 with eighteen-hundred and eighty-six Union troops that had recently boarded her at Vicksburg. W.T. Bankes photo

The 1863 660-ton side-wheel steamer Sultana (the fifth of that name)[1] was built for Capt. Pres Lodwick at the Cincinnati, Ohio John Litherbury yard, and launched January 3rd, 1863.  Moore and Richardson of Cincinnati built her machinery, boilers and engines.  Sultana was 260 feet in length, and 42 feet in width, her hull was 7 feet in depth, and her draught was 34 inches.  Sultana had (4) tubular style boilers[2] that were 46 inches in diameter by 18 feet in length that contained 24-5 inch flues.  Her two steam engines had 25 inch pistons with an 8 foot stroke that moved her 2-34 foot diameter by 11 feet wide (bucket width) side-paddlewheels.

This 1863 Sultana as were her predecessors was scheduled to run in the Louisville – New Orleans trade however, with the imminent threat of War, February 12th, 1863 she left Cincinnati for Wheeling on her maiden voyage and ran in this trade into March of 1864.  Sultana’s legal capacity was three-hundred and seventy-six persons including the crew of eighty-four.  In March 1864, Capt. Lodwick sold Sultana for $80,000.00 to a group of St. Louis investors with her new skipper being Capt. J. Cass Mason, first clerk W.J. Gamboel, and chief engineer Nathan Wintringer, a Steubenville, Ohio native.

Many Ohio River steamboats were recruited for Civil War transport service.  By the war’s end, approximately six hundred steamboats had served either the North or South.  Most of the steamboats chartered by the United States Quarter Master Department brought their civilian crews with them.  These steamboats hauled a steady stream of equipment and supplies from Northern river ports to U.S. Naval warehouses near the front lines.  Others served as troop transports ferrying troops to the battlefields and made dangerous runs daily past Confederate held towns.

In a report written in July of 1862, by Commander David D. Porter, speaking of the steamboat Captains, (masters) commanding their riverboats, he writes: “They know no weariness and they really seem to take delight in mortar firing, which is painful even to those accustomed to it.  It requires more than ordinary zeal to stand the ordeal.  Though I may have at times been exacting and fault–finding with them for not conforming to the rules of the service (which requires the education of a live-time to learn) yet I cannot withhold my applause when I see these men working with such earnest and untiring devotion to their duties while under fire.”

To expedite troop movement at any given time, many steamboats were grossly overloaded with troops.  In most cases, this never became an issue, however…

The steamer Sultana cleared Memphis up-bound April 26, 1865 with eighteen-hundred and eighty-six Union troops that had recently boarded her at Vicksburg.   Most of these troops had been released from a southern Civil War prison, just days before.    Sultana’s legal capacity of three-hundred and seventy-six persons including the crew of eighty-four meant about one-thousand six-hundred persons exceeded her capacity.  Two other steamers, the Pauline Carroll, and the Lady Gay standing by at Vicksburg had bid for transporting a portion of these troops but were turned down by Federal Officer Capt. Frederick Speed who favored the business owners of the Sultana.  April 26th, a photo of Sultana was made at Helena, Arkansas by Mr. W.T. Bankes and another at Memphis with all the troops aboard.  

Early a.m., April 27, 1865, three of Sultana’s four tubular boilers exploded killing fifteen hundred and forty-seven people.  The gunboat’s Tyler and Essex, first on the scene, rescued many survivors from the icy water.  This would be the worst maritime disaster in U. S. history, including the sinking of the Titanic.  The official count by the United States Customs Service was 1,547.  Modern historians tend to concur on a figure of “up to 1,800” the exact death toll of the Sultana explosion is unknown.

The official U.S. Naval inquiry found that Sultana’s boilers exploded due to the combined effects of ‘Careening’.  Sultana’s listing back and forth in the water due to severe overcrowding on the upper (Hurricane) deck and possibly the movement of the troops passing from the port to starboard side of the ship for a better view And, low water levels in her boilers.   A faulty repair to a leaky boiler was made a few days earlier.  “Nathan Wintringer, chief engineer on the Sultana testified in the Naval inquiry that one of her leaky boilers had been repaired at Vicksburg to his satisfaction.”  Assistant adjutant general for the Department of the Mississippi, Federal Officer Capt. Frederick Speed was court-martialed and found guilty of ‘Knowingly overloading the ship seven times over the legal passenger capacity’.  He was later acquitted.

Memphis National Cemetery is the burial place for many of the victims of the Sultana disaster.  Bodies of the victims continued to be found for months downriver, some as far as Vicksburg and many bodies were never recovered.   In 1888, a St. Louis resident named William Streetor claimed that his former business partner, Robert Louden made a deathbed confession of having sabotaged the Sultana by a torpedo.  This was an unlikely and unbelievable story.

The rest of the story: After the Civil War ended, James W. Phillips of Wheeling, West Virginia was working packet boats as a steam engineer with his former business partner, Dan Dunbar of Wheeling.  James W. was serving as chief engineer on the steamer Missouri in late 1865 and wrote his brother Hans Phillips in Wheeling that he felt the “tubular” style boilers on the Missouri were unsafe and that he would resign shortly.  January 30, 1866, a violent explosion of the tubular boilers on the packet Missouri caused the death of sixty-five persons including James and many more were injured.  February 9, 1866, the boilers on the W.R. Carter exploded, killing one-hundred twenty-four.  “She, (the W.R. Carter) had tubular boilers.”  These tubulars had won wide acceptance due to their fuel economy.  The U.S. Steamboat Inspection Service outlawed tubular boilers soon after the Carter exploded, and many packets were promptly taken out of service until outfitted with the proven, Western-Style, high-pressure boilers.[1] All steamboat machinery manufactured in Wheeling by the Sweeney and A.M. Phillips Company was the type of steam engine-boiler configuration known as the Western-style high-pressure system.  Unfortunately, the Sultana did not have this type of boilers.

John Bowman’s Sources and Bibliography

  1. Bowman, John, Wheeling The Birthplace of the American Steamboat Wheeling National Heritage Area Corporation, Wheeling, WV, 2008.
  2. Bowman, John, Steamboats on the Western Rivers in the Civil War Wheeling, WV, 2010
  3. Way, Frederick Jr., Way’s Packet Directory, 1848-1983 Sons and Daughters of Pioneer Rivermen, Ohio University, Athens, Ohio, 1983
  4. Way, Frederick Jr., Way’s Packet Directory, Missouri 3981 1864-1866 Pg. 326-327, W.R. Carter 5659 1864-1866 Pg. 477, Sultana 5216 1863-1865 Pg. 436 and 477

[1] Sultana refers to a Sultan’s wife, sister, or mother.  Steamboats: Sultana (1) built in 1836 in Cincinnati, Ohio ran in the New Orleans – Vicksburg trade into 1844, Sultana (2) built in 1843 in Jefferson, Indiana ran out of New Orleans, Sultana (3), built in 1848 in Cincinnati, Ohio ran in the  Louisville – New Orleans trade, Sultana (4), built in 1852 in Paducah, Kentucky ran in the  Louisville – New Orleans trade.  She burned at Hickman, Kentucky Mar 25, 1857, and the 1863 Sultana (5), built in 1863, in Cincinnati, Ohio was lost in an explosion of her boilers April 27, 1865.  There was also Sultana No. 2 built in 1848 in New Albany, Indiana

[1] Source: Way, Frederick, Jr. Way’s Packet Directory, pages 326,477.

[2] Tubular style boilers, these tubular style boilers had hot furnace gasses pass through the many tubes in the sealed water filled boilers, heating the water that created the steam to power the engines.  The water level had to be constantly monitored.

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