Accident or Sabotage?

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.

sinking-of-the-sultana.jpgIronically, 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!

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8 thoughts on “Accident or Sabotage?”

  1. Phyliss, I’ve always wondered about this horrible tragedy. I really hope it was just an accident and a deliberate act. It’s sure interesting. I hope you had a great New Year.

    • Hi Linda, thanks so much for stopping by and leaving a comment with as much work as you have going on. Also thank you for straightening out the date while I was at the doc office. I love Andersonville and anything attached to it. This is so closely connected and sure makes you wonder why it came about. They’ve pretty well figure the how, but I guess they’ll never know the “who”. Have a great 2017 my friend. Hugs, P

  2. I am so amazed by the pieces of history that are shared on this blog. Phyliss, thank you ! Very interesting!

    • Hi Melanie, thanks for leaving a comment. As I mentioned to Linda, I love Andersonville, Georgia, and have visited there twice. It has really gotten in my blood and I want to know more. I’d love to write a historical romance about Andersonville. Of course the Sultana is so closely connected it’d just about have to include the Sultana. Hope you’re started off to a wonderful 2017! Hugs, Phyliss

  3. I’m reading the trouble texan and loving it. I have read this some place else and I also am sure PBS had a show about the sinking of the ship because so many soldiers were on the ship. Also enjoy reading history that never made the front pages for one reason or another.

  4. Hi Kim, auh you truly made my day. I hope you enjoy The Troubled Texan. That’s the first book in the Kasota Springs Romance series. Because of my knee surgery, I’m behind on getting “Out of the Texas Night” (the second in the series) and the third will be about Sylvia. I’m so thrilled you are reading it. Now, as a long time reader of P&P, I have to confess that I actually did a longer version of the Sultana story back about 8 or so years ago. With being out of town for the holidays and getting back only night before last with my California bunch, I had to revise one of my favorite P&P posts. I wrote this before I became a regular Filly! I’m so glad you recognized it, but I’m bettin’ there’s a lot about it on the various history channels. Kim, I hope your 2017 has started off to be a wonderful year! Big hugs, Phyliss

  5. I need to get here earlier. Thank you for the interesting post. I had heard of the Sultana. Didn’t they recently retrieve artifacts from the wreckage? What a shame that these men suffered and survived the prison camps only to dies like this. Accident or sabotage, it doesn’t matter, they were still dead.

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