IOWA HISTORY PROJECT
Saturday Evening Post Newspaper
June 15, 1912
Historic civil war disaster.
Destruction of steamer sultana on lower river.
Story of the Tragedy by Capt. Chas. H. Patten, Who Boarded the Boat at Memphis Only a Few Hours Before the Terrible Explosion.
The Sultana disaster, twelve miles above Memphis, in the a. m., April 27, 1865 was more disastrous that the Titanic disaster, that is to say in the number of lives lost in proportion to the lives on board of the two vessels. The Sultana landed at Memphis about 9 p.m., April 26, 1865. The writer being well acquainted with the chief engineer, Lemuel Wilson, whom I served under as assistant on the steamer, Fanny Ogden, during the winter of 1862 and 1863, went aboard of the Sultana to renew old friendship.
Mr. Wilson told me about the trip up from New Orleans, leaving that port with 250 hogsheads of sugar in the hold and other miscellaneous freight, and about 25 passengers. When just a few miles below Vicksburg he discovered that one of the boilers was leaking badly, at the ends of the flues, so when the boat landed at Vicksburg he requested the captain to lay over until the necessary repairs could be made. Mr. Wilson told me how he had to have two (2) sheets put in two of the boilers over the bridge-wall and roll the flues of three of the boilers. I forgot to state that the Sultana had a battery of six tubular boilers, with fore and aft mud drums under her, the same, connected under the bottoms of the boilers, and in addition to these, there were what is known as chaulk joints, these being open flared connections, about 8 inches in diameter between and riveted to the boilers over fire doors near the front ends. This arrangement made it possible for the water to pass from one boiler to another rapidly and in case the boat was listed that is to say, down on one side or the other the water could run to the lower boiler more freely. By keeping this fact in mind as we describe a few of the succeeding details, I shall be able to dispense with all mystery in connection with this, the greatest life destroying explosion of steam boilers that ever occurred.
There were some steamboat men then that thought that the Sultana was a mystery, but when I relate what Mr. Wilson, the chief engineer told me, the minds of the readers will be disabused of all thought of mystery in the Sultana explosion. When the repairs to the boilers were completed at Vicksburg, the U.S. Quartermaster at Vicksburg ordered the captain, Bart Bowen to take aboard some soldiers, about 975 including the officers. These were returning prisoners of war, the most of them from Andersonville prison, an emaciated hollow eyed lot of men, who were now tasting the air of freedom once more – the first time in years—and they were happy as children when they staggered aboard the boat thinking of home and friends once more and on account of their previous suffering and present condition the restless soldiers were allowed the widest liberty of action that their cramped quarters permitted, and they were continually moving about: any unusual sight on either shore was a signal for a general rush to that side of the boat causing a list of the boat which, if prolonged, would be sure to result disastrously.
The army officers had been told of this and for a time preserved order and kept the men to their allotted places, but finally their vigilance relaxed and the duty fell upon the officers of the boat, which, as maybe supposed caused a friction between the crew and the soldiers, the latter resenting any attempt to curtail their liberty, thinking no doubt that their past suffering among enemies was sufficient, without being held in bond and kept under restraint by their friends.
The chief engineer (Wilson) fully aware of the situation and conscious of the fact that the officers of the boat were powerless to command, even in an emergency, became alarmed at the frequency of the lists, and prepared as best he could to avert the danger. He ordered the hot water hose to be coupled up, and stationed men at the nozzle, and in position to lighten up and shift the body of it from place to place, as he might direct. He then went among the guards and in the deck room, telling the men of the danger of crowding to either side, of the preparations he had made, and that he had the authority to use the hose, and warned them to move quickly whenever he gave the order to do so; while he knew that all the men in the lower deck if gathered to one side were in no wise a counterbalance for those on the two upper decks, yet they would assist in preventing a dangerous list. Had this system thus inaugurated, been in vogue on the two upper decks, the boat would have made the voyage in safety, but unfortunately, this was not the case, the soldiers being left to wander about at will, crowding across decks at something new to look at and escaping the threatened danger, only because the objects of interest were about evenly divided between the two shores. The boat was thus continually listed from side to side and the engineer and his assistants were kept busy all the time except when the soldiers were asleep.
After taking on coal from coal barges, taking on enough to make the run to Cairo. Captain Bowen tapped the bell and the writer stepped ashore, little thinking that the captain had rang the bell for his last time, and also of any disaster that was to come. I went down to the boat that was I was on, a government boat, and retired about midnight. It seemed to me that I scarcely got asleep when I was aroused by the watchman of the boat telling me that he thought the Sultana had blowed up, for he had heard the detonation. I quickly dressed and went out on the boiler deck from where I could see there was great excitement on the levee at the report of the Sultana’s explosion.
The wharf was soon crowed with people. The little steamer Mark Check had just came to the levee and proceeded up the river and did valiant service in rescuing a great many of the suffers of the disaster, bringing the rescued and about 80 to 100 dead bodies down to the city. The dead were laid out in rooms on the wharf boat, and when at daylight many went to view the dead. I counted the bodies but I have forgotten how many there were. The business houses and residences were draped in mourning for two or three days. The Memphis Bulletin came out with leaded columns and every body seemed to me to be in great sorrow for the disaster.
I met my friend Mr. Lem. Wilson, the chief engineer of the ill-fated Sultana, in St. Louis the year after the disaster, and he related to me the full details of the explosion. First Mr. Wilson told me about the U.S. Quartermaster crowding the soldiers on the boat at Vicksburg, against the protest of the captain and the boat’s agent, departing from Vicksburg with about 2200 souls aboard, and what occurred after departing from Memphis. He, Mr. Wilson, said that after departing from Memphis, the boat had swung out into the stream, the human cargo had become a restless, moving mass, and that the lights of the little town of Hope a short distance above Memphis, gave him renewed cause for alarm. The soldiers rushed to the larboard (or port side) and it listed the boat over so that the buckets of the starboard wheel were out of the water.
The possibility of turning over so frightened the soldiers on the upper deck that they ran back of their own accord, and for a time prevented a dangerous list. This incident, while it increased the restlessness of the soldiers, did not prevent its occurrence, and any light, however faint or distant, continued to attract attention.
When the boat was making the long crossing from St. Claire to what the steamboatmen called “Paddy hen and Chicken,” the hoodo water of Island 40 and whether a presentment, founded on previous occurrences of travel actuated the engineers, or whether it was a precaution, due to the belief of the hoodoo power of the Island, the speed of the fuel pumps were pumped were greatly increased, and the boilers were pumped up until the water level, if taken on an even keel would have been found only a few inches from the top of the shell. The assistant engineer was trying the water at the time, and when the gage stick was pressed against the upper gage cock of the starboard boiler, the boat was felt to careen suddenly to port, and so far over that steam started out of the second and bottom gage cocks when he tried them. The thump of the starboard engine as the wheel was lifted almost clear of the water, caused him to drop the gage stick and run to the front of the box, where on account of the extra list, he found it necessary to shut off all steam from that engine.
The port wheel was buried nearly to the shaft in the water, the soldiers in terror ran to the opposite side of their own accord. There was universal panic, orders were unheeded, discipline forgot and the engineer, knowing that no power on earth could prevent a disastrous explosion, if the boat remained longer in her present position, ran to the middle of the deck room and gave a hurried glance at the water gages. His heart sunk within him as he noted that the gage needles of the starboard boilers pointed downward and that steam was issuing from the upper flanges of the stern draw legs.
The surging of the steam pipes over his head and a groaning in the port cylinder, told him plainer than words that the water from the boilers was now passing over to that engine. His first thought on seeing the position of the water needles was to order the fires drawn, then it became necessary to shut down the port engine. It seemed a long while since the water left the outer boilers. He felt that the shells were red hot from the fierce fires that were burning under them and that plate and seam were already stretching out to the bursting point, and he knew that when the water ran back into them again the sudden increase of pressure would tear them to atoms. While he stood undecided, he felt the boat righten itself, not gradually and steadily as would have been natural in such a case, but with a sudden short, jerky motion, that caused the decks above and beneath him to tremble and crack as if their planking and beams were being wrenched apart. Almost paralyzed with fear he turned and ran to his station as fast as trembling limbs would carry him and ascended the steps. As he faced about the sound like the hissing of a snake, followed immediately by a thunderous report accompanied by a rush of steam and hot water, stunned and blinded him for a moment and when he opened his eyes in the awful pandemonium that ensued he stood half stifled and alone on the station. The whole upper works from the boilers aft, except the wheelhouses and a portion of the ladies’ cabin were blown away.
The stacks toppled over, carrying pilot house, texas and the midsection of the boiler deck with them, the whole crashing down together, crushing and mangling hundreds that were pinned between decks, while those on the hurricane roof were hurled to their death in the water below. Sheets of flame from the furnaces shot upward igniting the splintered timbers, and ran aft with the speed of thought, winding the whole after portion of the boat in a seething flame of fire. The port wheel, sunk to its shaft, was kept rolling by the force of the current. The bulkhead of the bakeshop, behind the engineer had been blown away and the wild cries of the burning victims sounded in his ears, and the flames surged up and around him. He turned and jumped into the water just forward of the wheel and passed under, clinging to one of the buckets. On rising to the surface his head came in contact with a long wooden ladder, to which he and some others equally fortunate, clung until it became entangled in a clump of young trees growing in the water a little distance from the Arkansas shore. From this position he saw the burning wheelhouses fall outward, and the last remnant of the upper works at the rear disappear in the flames, and most terrible of all he saw the head of the boat turn down stream.
The wind had been blowing toward the stern, and all forward of the fireroom had escaped the flames. Fully five hundred people were huddled together on the unburnt upper deck and forecastle. Now as the boat swung around the fire with added fury ate into this last refuge and closing scene was possibly more horrible than the beginning. As the fire advanced scores fell or were pushed overboard. A lifeboat was thrown from the hurricane roof bottom up and crashed down on the heads of those below, drowning many more than it rescued. Husbands tied life preservers to their wives and children and pushed them over into the struggling mass. Doors and shutters were torn off and the maddened men fought for possession as they fell into the drowning throng. Heavy stage planks and bales of hay were thrown into the water, only to sink with those they fell upon and rise too far away to be of any service. The flames were now leaping forward to the jack staff, forming a canopy of fire and smoke above the doomed people, and when the last supporting stanchion burned away the remnant of the upper deck fell forward on to the crowded forecastle, and the last living soul on board perished. Inside of forty minutes from the time of the explosion the drifting hull was a mass of twisted iron and smoking timbers, over 1900 people lost their lives, and the only mystery is, that there were so many saved from explosion and fire.
Captain Bart Bowen’s body was never recovered. The engineers were not to blame for the explosion. The ones most to blame were the officers in command of the post at Vicksburg for crowding and overloading the boat. Chas. H. Patten.
Collected and Transcribed by