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Before the Titanic there was…

By Daniel Hubbard | April 27, 2012

An attempt was made to list the men who survived and those who had "perished."

There has been a lot of news lately about the hundredth anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. Today, April 27, is actually the anniversary of the worst maritime disaster in American history. Worse even than the loss of life that night in 1912. Yet almost no one remembers it. Almost no one took notice at the time.

The Sultana was built in Cincinnati Ohio in 1863. It had a capacity of 376 passengers. It served along the Mississippi for two years, often as a troop transport. It had all the modern safety measures—automatic valves to release excess pressure in the boilers, fire hoses, floatation devices. It was one of the safest ships afloat.

The Sultana left New Orleans on April 21, 1865 heading north. She carried only about 100 passengers plus about 80 crew members, and some mules and hogs. Two days later she reached Vicksburg, Mississippi.

Union soldiers, recently released from the collapsing Confederacy’s prison camps, were waiting in Vicksburg. Steamship operators could make $5 per man for getting them to Cairo, Illinois. Rumors were rife that some of that money was being kicked back to army officers who were in charge of getting the men on board. The men themselves were weak, suffering from dysentery and malnutrition. They had survived places like Andersonville and Salisbury, places men described as being the very gates of Hell. Andersonville: the Last Depot quotes a letter that one, still unsure, survivor, Thomas Horan, wrote his brother that April. He was finally coming home “if God spares me to return home.”

The packed decks of the Sultana on the day before the disaster.

The Sultana paused to patch a leaky boiler. It should have been replaced but that would have caused a three day delay and other riverboats would pick up the former POWs and collect the money for their transport. The men wanted desperately to get home anyway. Soon it became impossible to even count just how many were on board. The Sultana‘s clerk claimed that there were 2400 soldiers and 180 civilians. There was almost nowhere to put so many men—six or seven times the ship’s legal capacity. They packed themselves in all over the steamer until it became nearly impossible for them to move. They wanted to be home.

When first one boiler, then another and then a third blew at 2 am on the morning of April 27, 1865, most of those men had no chance. The blast was so powerful that it was heard in Memphis, which they had left two hours before. Men were blown to bits, burned, scalded or pinned within the flaming wreckage. Hundreds of men, still feeble from months in the camps, drowned in the frigid water of the river.

The Army claimed that 1238 had died, toning down the number to avoid public ire. The Customs Service put the number at 1547. Subsequent estimates place the number at 1600-1700. The Army need not have worried. Had it been  battle, it would have been one of the worst of the war in terms of Union dead but the public barely noticed. Death on a massive scale had become too common. Just the day before John Wilkes Booth had been cornered and killed. Confederate armies were surrendering. The horror was ending. People did not want to pay attention to any more death. The New York Times buried the story on page 4.

Thomas Horan did not make it home.

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