Thursday, April 14, 2022

Review - "Destruction of the Steamboat Sultana: The Worst Maritime Disaster in American History" by Gene Salecker

[Destruction of the Steamboat Sultana: The Worst Maritime Disaster in American History by Gene Eric Salecker (Naval Institute Press, 2022). Hardcover, maps, photos, notes, bibliography, index. ISBN:9781682477434. Pages main/total:xii,387/509. $39.95]

At roughly 2 a.m. on April 27, 1865, the steamboat Sultana, loaded with nearly 2,000 home-bound Union ex-POWs along with paying passengers and crew complement, suffered a sequence of boiler explosions that crippled the ship and set it afire about seven miles north of Memphis, Tennessee. More than half of the men, women, and children aboard either immediately perished in the wreckage, were drowned in the river, succumbed to hypothermia, or died soon after from their injuries. That horrific toll made the vessel's loss the most costly in human lives of any U.S. waterborne disaster in its history. Speculation as to the cause of the tragedy continues to this day, and its historical memory has been maintained both in scholarly print and through organized efforts of descendants. Much of our firsthand knowledge of the disaster is owed to Chester Berry's 1892 compilation Loss of the Sultana and Reminiscences of Survivors, but the first comprehensive modern history, Jerry Potter's The Sultana Tragedy: America's Greatest Maritime Disaster, was published a century later in 1992. That groundbreaking study was followed soon after by Gene Eric Salecker's Disaster on the Mississippi: The Sultana Explosion, April 27, 1865. Those works, extensively grounded in primary sources, left readers in good hands; however, Salecker's research on the topic never ended. By returning to original sources and also examining materials newly uncovered over the past 25 years, Salecker has now produced a fresh study titled Destruction of the Steamboat Sultana: The Worst Maritime Disaster in American History.

Utilizing firsthand accounts written by individuals associated with the tragedy (among them survivors, eyewitnesses, military authorities, investigators, and rescuers) along with newspaper articles, government and military service records, and court martial documents, Salecker pieces together a meticulously detailed yet highly involving history of the Sultana tragedy. The entire story unfolds on the page. Beginning with a brief rundown of the 1863-built Sultana's namesake antecedents, the study recounts the Sultana's river career prior to its final voyage, the many machinations involved in it being used as a contract vessel for transporting prisoners, the disaster itself, the extensive nighttime rescue operation, local care of the victims (living and dead), the further life journeys of the survivors, press coverage of the event, the government investigation into the causes of the explosion, the decades-long (and ultimately unsuccessful) quest by survivor groups and their supporters to get the federal government to pay out disability benefits and erect public monuments, and, finally, enduring claims regarding sabotage. The book's disaster narrative displays a great aptitude on the part of the author for composing a remarkably thorough yet highly readable and comprehensible moment-by-moment account of the chaos and mass confusion that occurred on the Mississippi during that terrible early morning in April.

As is the case with many of the world's great catastrophes, the origin of the explosion that mortally wounded the Sultana cannot be definitively traced to a single cause but rather was most likely the result of an unfortunate combination of factors. There appears to be three leading possibilities drawn from both contemporary investigation and Salecker's modern reassessment of the evidence: (1) the grade of iron used in the patch became brittle when repeatedly heated and cooled (this was proved through tests performed much later) (2) the river water introduced into the boilers was very sediment-heavy (the river being at spring flood stage), and (3) the tubular boiler system (a relatively new design) installed in the Sultana and many other river steamboats of the period was unsafe and its internal architecture made the essential maintenance task of thorough sediment cleaning very difficult to perform.

That the Sultana was maintaining a high rate of speed against a flood-stage current is also suggestive of the possibility that the water level in the boilers was dangerously low. After the overloaded, top-heavy vessel (its unstable condition made even more so by the removal of the contents of the cargo hold in Memphis) swept across the current toward the Arkansas side of the river, it would not have taken much hull careening to expose red-hot flues to splashing boiler water, the resulting steam flash instantly raising internal pressure to potentially catastrophic levels. Supporting this hypothesis are confirmed reports that the engineer on duty at the time of the accident had drawn water from the boilers twice just before the first explosion rocked the vessel. Presumably he had thought it safe to do so, his gauge readings (which could be dangerously false due to a commonly known process called "foaming") apparently raising no red flags in the engineer's mind. On the other hand, water at safe boiler levels could also lead to an explosion due to a large leak in the system. For example, if the patch installed at Vicksburg failed the pressure in the previously closed system would drop dramatically, instantly lowering the boiling point of the water contained inside and perhaps causing an explosive energy release in flash steam. In the end, the precise sequence of events will never be known with certainty. Evidence of careening prior to the explosion seems inconclusive, but the location and angle of the boiler explosion (which added to the tragedy by blowing away the pilot house and preventing the stricken vessel from being steered to shore) seems to exonerate the rush-job patch as being the metal weak point that first gave way.

As fatal as the boiler explosions and steam scaldings were to the fate of passengers and crew, the ensuing fire was much worse. A fire-fighting system of specially designed buckets and water barrels existed, but Salecker notes the high likelihood that few of the buckets remained in place (they were used by thirsty soldiers for water collection and by others for waste disposal) and the barrel contents consumed without replenishment. It will forever remain unknown if, as at least one survivor suggested, the fire could have been readily extinguished had enough order been reestablished.

A modest amount of illustrations are included in the volume, but the narrative still asks a great deal of the reader when it comes to creating a mental picture of what happened on the Sultana. While Salecker does provide an adequate layman's description of the boiler system and devotes a good amount of text space to describing the vessel's layout, some blueprint-style design drawings of the Sultana's structure and propulsion system would have helped readers visualize more fully the narrative's exhaustively detailed account of the vessel's destruction and the onboard locations of the multitude of survival stories related in the text. Ending rather abruptly, the book might also have benefited from a concluding summary, however brief, of the author's most central arguments and myth-dispelling conclusions. That said, Salecker clearly assigns faulty boiler design and poor maintenance (and perhaps low water) as the most likely causes of the explosion.

Period accounts hint at no other outcome but that the survivors received the best medical care available. Salecker is also surely correct that the steamboat sinking in such relatively close proximity to a major population center saved hundreds of lives through having both abundant rescue resources near at hand and ample hospital facilities (Memphis was a major base of operations under Union military occupation since 1862). Memphis citizens, Union naval vessels, civilian boat operators, and those living along the flooded riverbanks all set out in darkness to save victims in the river. Once the survivors were safely returned to the city, residents offered medical help and generously met the personal needs of those who lost everything including the clothes on their backs. While such matters can be reasonably regarded as beyond the scope of the study, save some suggestion of a combination of oil and flour being applied to affected areas it would have been interesting to read in more detail about what treatments were involved in the care of the Sultana's most seriously steam-scalded and/or fire burned victims.

Estimates of the total number of prisoners packed onto the steamboat vary to a relatively small degree at this point, and Salecker's extensive research has arrived at a total very nearly equal to the official figure of 1,966. Passengers and crew raised the number aboard to over 2,100 men, women, and children. Arriving at an exact number of perished soldiers, crew, and passengers is nigh impossible, but Salecker, by his own estimate, dedicated three years of research to the matter. In the end, his findings closely correlate with the official postwar investigations. While it seems clear that some number between 1,150 and 1,200 souls perished in the disaster, the author cites an interesting part of the Sultana's cultural legacy as tied to the Titanic. It's unclear at what levels the Sultana disaster story was maintained in popular historical memory by the early 1900s, but immediately after the sinking of the Titanic some in American journalism grasped the opportunity to raise yet again long-discredited Sultana fatality figures of 1,700 to 1,800, as if having the worst maritime tragedy in its history was some kind of contest among nations.

Salecker's extensive look into both domestic and foreign newspaper coverage of the Sultana's demise convincingly dismisses the popular myth that press reporting of the disaster was muted by other wartime events associated with the close of the war (ex. the Appomattox surrender of April 9 and continued news fallout from the April 14 Lincoln assassination). In reality, Sultana coverage was extensive in newspapers throughout the country and quickly spread across the world. Also, contrary to what many have argued, the story did not disappear quickly from the headlines.

As is often the case with exceptional tragedies, government authorities did take steps in the wake of the Sultana sinking to prevent such a thing from happening again. Though more catastrophic tubular boiler explosions on river steamboats were allowed to occur before decisive action was finally imposed, eventually boilers of that design were ordered removed and replaced by reliable older designs. Additionally, new inspection laws were passed and fresh regulations regarding operator licensing and crew training mandated.

Only one individual associated with the tragedy was ever brought to trial, and unfortunately that person, Capt. Frederic Speed, was actually a conscientious officer not at all responsible for the selection of the Sultana and not involved in the government transport corruption and bribery exchange that directly led to the vessel's overcrowded condition. In the book, Salecker recounts at length the entire course of the trial in all its legal malpractice and reckless attempts at scapegoating. Fortunately, the stunning guilty outcome was overturned upon review by the office of Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt in Washington.

Even though three separate government investigations into the cause of the Sultana tragedy considered and dismissed the possibility of sabotage, there are still those today who insist that an "infernal machine" such as the infamous coal torpedo was the source of the explosion. Salecker's reinvestigation of the relevant sources conclusively establishes that no primary physical or documentary evidence exists that might even remotely support the possibility that sabotage doomed the vessel. Unfortunate that it is that this allegation still gets bandied about in print and through conspiracy-friendly media programs, Salecker's book should provide readers with all the ammunition needed to decisively counter such claims.

The end result of three decades of intensive primary research, thorough investigation, and deep reflection, Gene Salecker's Destruction of the Steamboat Sultana surpasses all previous coverage of the topic and is clearly poised to become the new standard history of the tragic event and everything that surrounded it. One hesitates to declare any history book to be the last word on its subject, but suffice it to say that this rigorously comprehensive treatment of the Sultana is destined to become an enduring classic among Civil War history studies and waterborne disaster chronicles.


  1. Another meticulous review, Drew, as we have come to expect from you. You suggest the "overloaded" vessel may have contributed in some part to the explosion. Was this overloading explored by the authorities as to why it was allowed to occur?

    1. John,
      Yes, it's explained at length in the book, but the short of it is the officer (Capt. Reuben Hatch) responsible for selecting the Sultana and packing the men into it like sardines (the govt. paid a set sum per man and distance, and he made a deal with the Sultana's captain to take ALL the released prisoners assembled at Vicksburg in exchange for a kickback), got off scot-free. Never called to account himself, he quickly resigned (which put him safely out of the army's hands)and successfully resisted subpoenas to appear in the Speed trial. It's definitely strange that they zeroed in on Speed to begin with (the Gen. Dana investigation is especially confounding), but Hatch was a slippery fellow. As you might recall, he's the corrupt Cairo quartermaster officer charged during Grant's early command there with bribery and fraud who was then cleared and reinstated by Lincoln after Illinois political friends intervened.


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