Thursday night, the Knoxville History Project hosted Norman Shaw to talk about the Sultana disaster over Zoom.
Paul James, the development director for the Knoxville History Project, introduced Shaw, and spoke briefly about the mission of the project.
“Our mission is to research and promote the history and culture of Knoxville,” James said.
Shaw is a retired attorney and well-known Civil War historian, as well as a founder of Knoxville’s Civil War Round Table and of the Association of Sultana Descendants and Friends.
The worst maritime disaster in U.S. history, the Sultana disaster in 1856, left over 1,100 dead. It was caused most directly by a boiler explosion that wasn't fixed properly, and the crowdedness of the ship did not allow for many survivors.
The Sultana was a steamboat with a regular route from St. Louis to New Orleans through the Mississippi River. On April 13, the Sultana left St. Louis and went to Cairo, Illinois, where the crew learned the next day that President Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated.
Captain J. Cass Mason wanted to get more Union prisoners of war (POW) from Andersonville Prison on board for the return trip, so he was rushing to make it in time. Most of the people that died were Union POWs.
Then, Mason noticed that the boat had a leaky boiler, so the crew went to Vicksburg, Mississippi, to get a repair, because leaky boilers were known to be dangerous.
“It’s not unusual for boilers to explode on the rivercraft,” Shaw said.
But on April 24, a mechanic did a temporary fix on the boiler until the crew got back to Cairo, which unfortunately did not hold up.
The crowdedness of the boat was a major reason why so many people died. There were horses and mules aboard as well and no sanitation facilities.
“The men are crammed in, but they have food on board, and they knew they only had two or three more days of discomfort,” Shaw said.
Different parts of the boiler were exposed, and when the water hit steel, pressure was created, which caused the explosion. Both smokestacks collapsed, the boat sunk and the scene was gruesome, according to survivors.
“The water’s churning because of all the people cursing and screaming and yelling and praying all at once,” Shaw said.
Soldiers floated down the river to Memphis and alerted them to the disaster. Luckily, there were different hospitals nearby, so some people did survive.
Afterward, three trials took place. In them, Captain Frederick Speed was blamed for the disaster, and portrayed as the scapegoat, but ultimately nobody was held accountable.
“The tragedy is that nobody was really held responsible … and after the war, the Sultana got forgotten about,” Shaw said.
Shaw closed the event with a discussion of the monument, which was dedicated on July 4, 1916. The names of the Tennesseans involved were carved into it. There is also a museum to commemorate the disaster in Marion, Arkansas.
Next week, the Knoxville History Project is hosting a tour of the Knoxville Museum of Art.