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?
To one lucky winner I will give them an autographed copy of either “The Troubled Texan” or “The Tycoon and the Texan”. If you prefer, I can send you an autographed copy of one of the six anthologies written by Sister Filly, Linda Broday; Jodi Thomas, the late DeWanna Pace, and me!