During the Civil War, many East Tennessee citizens joined a Union
Cavalry group. They ran into a seasoned Confederate group and were
captured. They spent the rest of the war in a prisoner of war camp in
Alabama. They were lucky it was not Andersonville.
With the war over, they were released and given tickets to go north on
the Mississippi if they could get to Vicksburg. Five dollars for non-
officers and ten dollars for officers.
The Government contract for transportation was a very lucrative
opportunity for the owners of a paddle boat called The Sultana.
A ship that was licensed for about 325 passengers was loaded with
about 2500. And up the Mississippi they went.
It was April, 1865. The river was swollen with melting snow and spring
rains. The current was strong. Many of the passengers had to go
north for discharging before returning to their beloved homes. Many
returning to the Knoxville area.
It was noted that you could tell the difference between the prisoners of
war who were from Andersonville, verses the others.
The reason for the explosion has been debated for years. What is
known is that one of the boilers exploded, causing sympathetic
explosions of the other boilers. Men were scalded to death, burned to
death or simply just blown up. It was reported that many of the East
Tennessee survivors of the POW camps were packed in to the boiler
room area, unable to escape. Was it capitalistic greed , or terrorism?
The boilers must have been working very hard to go up the river,
The Sultana blew up on April 27, 1865, about seven miles north of
Memphis, Tennessee, claiming as many as 1,800 lives, according to
historical estimates. I have seen some lower estimates of 1547. The
Titanic claimed fewer — 1,517 — when it sank 45 years later.
But the momentous events of April 1865 — Lincoln's death and Gen.
Robert E. Lee's surrender among them — all but eclipsed the
deadliest maritime disaster in US History.
I have a lifelong friend, Ray Hodges, many of you readers probably
know him. A business, civic and church leader from East Knoxville
read an article of a few weeks ago about the defacing of a monument
on 17 th street. He reminded me of another monument placed by the
survivors of the Sultana explosion in South Knoxville. His grandfather
survived the Sultana explosion. He woke up in a tree possibly saved
by ex-Confederate soldiers who came to the rescue at the scene of
the disaster. This surviving union cavalry man, who survived the war
and the Sultana explosion had five grandsons serve our country in
World War II.
The ship sunk, and the river changed course over time. The ship is
now underground , west of the Mississippi, in Arkansas.
Not many people know of the disaster, and its effect on East
Tennessee. The Civil War had ended, Lee had surrendered, Jefferson
Davis had been captured, Lincoln had been assassinated, John
Wilkes Booth had been captured, and our nation was mourning the
deaths of over 600,000 of its children.
1800 or so more deaths would not be front page news.
They left East Tennessee, fought, got captured, served in a POW
camp, and all they wanted to do was come home.