The Catastrophe on the Mississippi: Finding the S.S. Sultana on Chronicling America

Early in the morning on April 27, 1865, the worst maritime disaster in American history occurred when the S.S. Sultana exploded on the Mississippi River just north of Memphis, Tennessee. Some historians have estimated that over 1,700 lives were lost—most belonging to Union soldiers who were traveling home after the end of the Civil War. According to the Columbus Daily Ohio Statesman, the ship had been transporting “1,996 Federal soldiers and 350 officers, lately released from Cahawba and Andersonville prisons” (April 29, 1865, Image 6, Col. 3, via Chronicling America).

The explosion resulted from a series of hasty repairs to the wooden steamship’s faulty boilers. An investigation held in the months following the disaster concluded with the ship’s captain, Fredrick Speed, being found guilty of neglect on June 9, 1866.

Newspapers available through the Library of Congress’s digital newspaper website, Chronicling America, allow you to see firsthand what people living at the time would have read about the S.S. Sultana incident. Though reports on this tragedy by the American press were largely overshadowed by other historic events happening at the time, such as the progress of President Abraham Lincoln’s funeral train, Ohio newspapers covered the disaster extensively. At over 500 men, Ohio had the largest contingent of troops aboard the ship.

Those who did not die in the explosion drowned in the flooded, cold waters of the Mississippi. After living in the harsh prison camp conditions, few lacked the strength to swim to shore or await rescue efforts from nearby Memphis. Some accounts of what the soldiers—both those who died and those who survived— experienced have been recorded in the newspapers. The Tiffin Weekly Tribune, for example, reports, “The scene following the explosion was terrible and heart-rending in the extreme….The survivors represent the screams as agonizing beyond precedent” (May 4, 1865, Image 3, Col. 5, via Chronicling America).

The S.S. Sultana made the news long after its tragic end in 1865. Anniversaries, reunions of survivors and even similar disasters—such as the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine in 1898—prompted the press to write about the steamship again and again. Several memorials have been erected around the nation in remembrance of those who needlessly perished with the ship.

Interested in learning more about the S.S. Sultana? Click here to see it featured in one of the Ohio Historical Society’s Chronicling America Search Strategy Videos available through YouTube! This short video will not only show you how to find information about the S.S. Sultana from the over six million pages of historic American newspapers available on Chronicling America, but it will teach you why and when to use the “any,” “all” and “phrase” search options when performing other searches on the website. You may also want to view the S.S. Sultana Subject Guide, available through the Ohio Digital Newspaper Portal Subject Guide Collection, for even more information.

The Chronicling America Search Strategy Videos was developed by the Ohio Historical Society with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Library of Congress as part of the National Digital Newspaper Program in Ohio staff. Please visit the Ohio Digital Newspaper Portal for more information.

By Jenni Salamon, Project Coordinator, NDNP-OH

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