Few stories of Naval tragedies rise to the level as that of The SS “Sultana”. A Steamship launched on 1863, during The American Civil War – she was a massive Paddle Wheel Riverboat. Used for transporting passengers from Occupied New Orleans , Louisiana to St. Louis, Missouri, she was pressed into Service by Federal Forces to move Troops, wounded Soldiers and Military cargo as well. Displacing 1 719-tons, “Sultana” was 200-feet long and stood 43-feet tall. She was constructed almost entirely of wood and was 4-Decks. Her side Wheel was 34-feey in diameter. Crewed by 85, “Sultana” could carry 400 passengers and hundreds of tons of cargo.
Her claim to infamy lies with her destruction. On April 27, 1865 – 2 weeks after the end of The Civil War, “Sultana” was transporting 1,400 recently liberated Union Soldiers from Confederate Prisoners Camps, as well as 70 passengers and a full Crew of 85. At 2 AM, a massive explosion and fireball erupted from “Sultana” (7 miles North of Memphis, Tennessee on Mississippi River). Only a small portion of her burning Hull remained afloat.
Of her 1,550 passengers, only 760 survived (with many bodies never recovered). Her sinking remained a mystery for years. The most widely accepted theory for her loss, was sabotage. It is assumed Confederate sympathizers (angered by their loss of The War), used “Coal Torpedoes”. As previously discussed, theses were Grenade like devices disguised to look like ordinary lumps of coal. Mixed in with regular pieces, they would be shoveled into burners below Decks to generate flame to heat boilers (Steam). Sufficient amounts of which would easily cause a massive explosion. The loss of The “Sultana”, is considered one of the worst American civilian Naval disasters in it’s History.