The Story of the Sultana


It wasn’t until recently that I learned of the Sultana. This name sounds like some exotic location. However, the truth is much more dire, but fascinating the more you learn. The Sultana, was a Civil War era paddle-wheel steamboat. The story behind it never became well known. I learned details when visiting the Sultana Disaster Museum in Marion, Arkansas. It is a story of greed, sadness, and hope! Tracy Brick, President of the Marion Chamber of Commerce sent me a press release about the museum. She added that this amazing museum is going to expand in the near future! Tracy said this new museum will help others learn the history of the Sultana as well as bring money and visitors into Marion. A win-win for all!

This sign is outside the Sultana Disaster Museum

The Sultana Story

The Sultana steamboat exploded and burned on the Mississippi River on April 27, 1865. Per a Congressional Resolution this was said to be the greatest maritime disaster in United States history. Around 1,200 passengers lost their life during the explosion, and sinking of the steamboat. This disaster took place in Marion, Arkansas. Marion is located across the river from Memphis, Tennessee. More people died in this accident than on the Titanic!

Tracy Brick took Keith and I to the place on the levee near where the Sultana disaster happened. Tracy added that the site is on private land and the ship they think is buried deep beneath a soybean field. So the accident site is inaccessible. The accident though was explosive enough that Tracy said, “It changed the course of the river. It is 30′ deep.”

Tracy and I at the levee near the site where the Sultana sank.

The Sultana is now buried about a mile from the main channel of the Mississippi River. “This a highly protected piece of land,” Tracy said because of the levee, it is really watched to ensure trespassers don’t breach the levee.

Seeing this spot though helped us understand the dynamics of our tour at the museum.

At the museum, guide Nancy Huff took Keith and I on a wonderful tour. The tour began with a short video covering the basics. Union soldiers, former prisoners’ released from Confederate camps made up many of the passengers on the Sultana. “After the Civil War, they were transferring prisoners’ from the Cahaba, Alabama and Andersonville, Georgia prisons home,” Nancy said.

Nancy Huff provided a great tour. She stands before the model of the Sultana.

The Impact!

I can’t even imagine the prisoners’ and their family. There they survived some of the worst conditions especially at Andersonville, only to die on their way to home and freedom!

They were transported on the Sultana, which had been built in 1863. Nancy said, “It was one of the elite steamboats. She was constructed in 1862 at the John Lithoberry shipyard in Cincinnati. She was a 260-foot wooden steam transport. There is a historical marker along the river in Cincinnati representing the shipyard where she was built.

Before the disaster, the Sultana regularly carried passengers and freight between St. Louis and New Orleans.

What Happened on the Sultana?

Prisoners and passengers had boarded at Camp Fisk outside of Vicksburg. Federal soldiers were traveling ultimately to Cairo, Illinois as their final destination.  The route was Vicksburg, Helena Arkansas, Memphis and then Cairo.

Nancy told us that the steamboat was originally designed to carry only 376 passengers plus crew. She did add though that they did often carry 1500 soldiers successfully. However with 2200 passengers the boat was way overloaded. Later investigations revealed corrupt practices, including kickbacks, and bribes paid to high-ranking Union officers. These bribes are what caused the overcrowding of the boat, and ultimately the blowing of the boiler.

According to the Arkansas Civil War placard that we visited, “A weakened boiler had been patched instead of fixed, blew up about 7 miles north of Memphis, hurling men into the frigid river. Men from Marion were among those who tried to save passengers., but around 1800 people died in history’s worst maritime disaster. No one was ever punished for the tragic loss of the Sultana.” (The number at the museum says 1200 people died, I found different numbers at different plaques and citing’s.)

What is even more distressing was learning during the tour that two other boats were empty that were traveling the same route. Due to the bribe that began with Col. Rueben Hatch, all POW’s boarded only the Sultana. Besides the passengers, they took on sugar and wine in Memphis and 1,000 bushels of coal in Hopefield, Arkansas. This along with the overcrowding tilted the boat right and left exposing the iron walls of the boiler to direct fire. The patch didn’t hold, the boiler exploded, and the boat became a firestorm.

There Was a Big Storm The Night of the Disaster.

What made events even more tragic Nancy said was that the boiler blew at 2:00 a.m. It happened during a storm when the river was high and out of banks. “The first boiler exploded, then they think two more. They estimate that as many as 400-500 were killed instantly.,” Nancy said, “There were no survivors after 12 hours and of the 500 or so survivors that were taken to Memphis, another 200 died.”

Photo of the Sultana taken by Thomas W. Banks before the explosion. It is easy to see how crowded the boat was. On the bottom section the images are of horses.

There is a photo at the museum that shows the heavily overcrowded Sultana at Helena, Arkansas.  The picture was taken by Helena photographer Thomas W. Banks near 7:00 a.m. on April 26, 1865. This iconic picture was taken just 19 hours before the Sultana exploded.  This is one of only two known photographs of the ill-fated steamboat. The boiler was patched at Helena. The welder didn’t want to come on board because he thought it needed fixed not just patched. The crew promised that they would fix the boiler properly at Cairo. Who knew this patch would never last?

Frederick Speed was later court martialed over the event. However, the Adjunct General overturned it.

Why Don’t We Know of the Disaster

The disaster has been overlooked in history since it was overshadowed by the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln and the search for his murderer. Then John Wilkes Booth was captured and killed on April 26, the day before the disaster.

Besides that, people were tired of bad news. “People didn’t want to read anymore about death lust and greed,” Nancy added about the time after the Civil War.

This is a story that everyone should know. I am so glad I learned this story that has been buried in the past.

The Current Sultana Museum

Each passenger has a story and a life lived. These are pictures of the passengers. One includes a young bride that was on her honeymoon. She was never found again after the explosion.

The museum shares what happened to many of the survivors. There are articles from the Sultana like the 100 photographs of passengers and stories to go with them. You learn the story of bribes and what happened with the Union soldiers. At the museum there are touching stories of survivors as well. My favorite story was of the alligator that saved a survivor. On board the crew had a pet alligator. Pvt. William Lugenbeal got the alligator out of his box and bayoneted him afraid that he could be a danger in the water. He then threw the box that had held the alligator overboard and used it to save his life. There is a box he built commemorating the event that is now in the museum!

There was a Sultana Survivors Association that met each year for a long time. The first meeting of survivors began meeting in the Midwest in December 1865. The current museum opened in April of 2015 and covers 1,200 square feet.

Stories of hope and how the Marion residents helped survivors are one of the highlights of the Sultana Story. “Our Mayor, Frank Fogelman, his family were farmers who were on the bank of the River and helped survivors,” Tracy Brick said.

This was especially touching knowing that Union soldiers had razed much of the area and the volunteers knew they were helping the very men they had been fighting before.

The New Museum!

This is where the new museum will be located.

The new museum location will be in a 1930’s WPA era former school gym located on Military Road. The gym will retain its architectural integrity. The new museum will offer a 22,000 square foot memorial. There will be interactive displays along with an auditorium and office space, a gift store, theatre, and artifacts from the ship.

Funds are still being raised for the new museum, although the Sultana Historical Preservation Society has embarked on a 7.5 million Capital Champaign. Donations to this can be mailed to PO Box 211, Marion AR 72364!

Historic Markers

Besides the museum, we enjoyed stopping at the Sultana historic markers near the Welcome to Marion sign. These can be reached from Arkansas Route 77 north of East Military Road. Look on the right when traveling south. The markers are located in the rear of the Marion City Hall parking lot.

This is not the only place to find monuments dedicated to this disaster. According to an article in The Daily Times, Monuments and historical markers to Sultana and her victims have been erected at Memphis; Muncie, Ind.; Marion, Ark.; Vicksburg, Miss.; Cincinnati and Mansfield, Ohio; Hillsdale, Mich.; and Knoxville.”

Come see the museum. Learn about the history of the Sultana. This is a story to share. There are several books that can be purchased at the museum to give you more details!

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  1. Kay Hogan

    I have been waiting for this story Cindy! It did not disappoint! Very interesting!

    1. Cindy

      Thank you Kay, it was fascinating!

  2. Vanessa Whiteside

    I would’ve never heard of this tragedy if it weren’t for your post. Thank you for teaching me something new.

    1. Cindy

      Glad to share this fascinating story.

  3. Tracy Brick

    Thank you for the wonderful article about the Sultana Story and the Sultana Disaster Museum. I look forward to welcoming you back to Marion when the new museum opens.

    1. Cindy

      Thank you, it is a wonderful place and I would be honored to come see the new museum!

  4. Sid Gamertsfelder

    Enjoyed your story. Is there a list of the former POWs that died? I have a relative that family lore said died at Cahaba prison. I can track him to Cahaba but his not on the list of graves. Is it possible he went down on the Sultana?

    1. Cindy

      Sid, I know they have a list of some names at the Sultana Disaster Museum. That is where I would check to see if your relative is listed. I hope you find the answer to what happened to your family member!