The Sultana Disaster

(Totals for the number of people on the Sultana and those who were killed in its disaster vary from account to account. The totals given here may not be accurate.)


Early in the Civil War Henry Waldron was charged with enlisting volunteers from Hillsdale County to fight for the Union cause.  The 18th Michigan Infantry was formed.  They went into encampment at the farm of Lewis Emery, where the sweet spring water was healthful and also made bathing simple.  The encampment area now encompasses Lewis Emery Park on State Road, stretching east for about a quarter of a mile.

The 18th was mustered into the Union Army on August 9, 1862 and sent off from the train station with tears and cheers.  Returning home after the war, one hundred, twenty-nine soldiers from the 18th were on the Sultana, a Mississippi River steamboat, when it took its final - fatal - journey north on the Mississippi.                                             

With Robert Fulton’s development of the steamboat in 1811, Mississippi River traffic through most of the 19th and into the early 20th centuries was dominated by this relatively speedy transport.  Goods were moved rapidly to markets, and the luxury of steamboat accommodations, including an elegant Grand Salon and meals served on china, silver and crystal, drew many passengers.  One of the most luxurious, most commodious and fastest of the Mississippi River steamboats was the Sultana, launched for her maiden voyage on February 11, 1863.  Her owner was Captain Preston Lodwick, who was noted for producing superior boats.  Falling deeply in love at age 67, this confirmed bachelor committed himself to a domestic life on land and sold the Sultana on March 7, 1864 to a consortium of three men that included J. Cass Mason.  Mason was the majority shareholder and captain of the steamboat.

With the Civil War raging, travel on the Mississippi River became dangerous.  By early 1865 Captain Mason was in financial difficulty.  To deal with this, he and 21 other captains formed a loose association of independently owned steamboats.  In an effort to assure themselves a steady income, they contracted with the Union government to transport war-related freight and troops, earning $5 for each enlisted man transported and $10 for each officer.  Mason’s money woes and this generous payment for transporting troops heavily influenced his actions when it came time for the released Union prisoners in Vicksburg to board the Sultana.

“Rules of War,” a mind-boggling oxymoron, was supposedly humane and civilized treatment in the midst of the carnage when one group of men attempts to kill another group of men.  In the Civil War, one “Rule” involved an on-going prisoner exchange or paroling of soldiers captured from the opposing army.  Prisoners of war from each army were to be “paroled” on a man-for-man and rank-for-rank basis, and each man promised not to take up arms until he had returned to his own army.  It didn’t work very well, and prisoners in both the North and South were crowded into camps unprepared to feed, clothe and house them. 

In February of 1865, Lt. Col. Howard A.M. Henderson, the Commander of Cahaba, Alabama Confederate Prison, traveled under a flag of truce to Union-held Vicksburg, Mississippi, to meet with Col. Archie C. Fisk, who was in charge of the Union Army at Vicksburg.  The two men decided to send the prisoners from Cahaba - as well as those from Andersonville in Georgia - to Vicksburg.  Confederate prisoners from the Union prison camp in Mobile, Alabama would be sent to Vicksburg also and there the exchange could take place.  At the parole camp the men who had already survived the barbarity of the prison camps and the long trip by steamboat, train, and 40 mile walk to Vicksburg were fed, clothed, and housed in tents.  Many began to regain their health, but many also remained seriously ill, especially those who had come from Andersonville.  Still technically prisoners of war, they were guarded by the Union’s 66th Colored Troops.

But there was a difficulty.  Confederate prisoners only dribbled into the parole camp and Confederate Lt. Col. Henderson insisted that the man-for-man and rank-for-rank paroles be honored.  In Sherman’s March to the Sea all telegraph wires had been severed.  Contacting the Union prison camps with the direction that they send Confederate prisoners to Vicksburg relied on men actually traveling to the camps.  Capt. George A. Williams immediately undertook journeys to Mobile and then Cairo, Illinois to bring Confederate prisoners to Vicksburg.

Then, on April 2, 1865, the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia fell, and Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered his army to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant on April 9.  This was a deal changer for the previously agreed upon prisoner exchange and it, too, contributed to the Sultana disaster. 

The Confederate government issued an order to release all Union prisoners on April 13, 1865.  However, they were still under the command of the Union Army and needed to be officially mustered out. This task fell to Senior Assistant Adjutant General, Capt. Frederic Speed.  Speed, acutely aware of his responsibility to return the pitiful wrecks from Cahaba and Andersonville to their families, worked tirelessly to create a complete roll of prisoners, listing them by state and regiment.  This job was complicated by additional groups of Union prisoners who continued to enter the parole camp.

At 7:00 a.m. on April 15, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln died after being shot the evening before by John Wilkes Booth.  People reacted according to their political persuasions, some exalting in the death of a man they considered a tyrant and others with deep grief and anger.  The event consumed the national attention, leaving little for the Sultana when it met its own death twelve days later.

On April 23, 1865, the Sultana steamed into Vicksburg with its middle larboard (left-hand) boiler cracked and bulging.  Capt. Mason was concerned that he might lose the transport of the prisoners now left in the parole camp (and the money they would bring).  In some agitation he approached the man in charge of assigning soldiers to steamboats.  He forcefully reminded him that the Sultana had a contract with the U.S. military to transport men.  He made no mention of the damaged boiler, which was being repaired at Mason’s command with a patch, not a replacement, so no time would be lost.  On seeing the steamboat Pauline Carroll docking at the wharf next to the Sultana, Mason renewed his effort to make big money on the prisoner transport.  He reiterated that he “had a right” to take all the remaining prisoners on the Sultana and that the Pauline Carroll did not have a contract with the army.

Matters were moving at a frenetic pace in the parole camp.  Capt. Speed, assisted by two volunteer prisoners, was rushing to finish the rolls so all the prisoners could go home.  With Speed’s job finally completed, the prisoners were sent by train to the wharf in Vicksburg.  After seeing the excessive numbers of prisoners who were to join the 100 civilian passengers and 85 crew members, Speed questioned why the Pauline Carroll wasn’t also being used.  His questions were ignored.  On April 24, 1865, over 2200 exuberant prisoners, including the Hillsdale County 18th Michigan Infantry, boarded the Sultana, and it backed into the flood-swollen Mississippi for the trip to Cairo, Illinois.

The prisoners were used to crowded conditions in Cahaba and Andersonville, but the Sultana experience introduced a new definition of crowding.  Few men moved from their spots on the deck for fear of losing a place to sleep, and the areas behind the paddle wheels were utilized as latrines.  With 120 tons of sugar that had acted as ballast unloaded at Memphis, the shallow boat became even more dangerously top heavy.  In the early morning hours of April 27, 1865, while the firemen fed vast quantities of coal into the boilers in an attempt to fight the powerful current, the weakened boiler exploded, precipitating the explosion of two more boilers.  Individual structures on the boat ripped or fell, leading to the paddle wheels breaking away.  The boat turned 180 degrees, redirecting the fire to the forward deck where prisoners had taken refuge.  In all, almost 1800 people lost their lives through being burned, badly injured or drowning.  This was more than were killed on both sides in the Battle of Shiloh.

On the Sultana were 280 boys from Michigan, 129 of whom were from the 18th Michigan Infantry.  One of the boys lost was Jonathan Robins of Allen who wrote a letter from Vicksburg on April 14, 1865 filled with hope that he would soon be home. Jonathan and 70 comrades from the 18th survived the war, prison camp and a difficult passage to Vicksburg to the parole camp only to perish on the last leg of their journey home. 

Alonzo VanVlack

Alonzo VanVlack

In 1892 Chester D. Berry, himself a Sultana survivor, published a book of recollections of the event from Michigan men.  It was called Loss of the Sultana and Reminiscences of Survivors.  Berry wrote that in the first minutes and hours after the explosion the survivors fought not only flames, the darkness and the water, but each other.  He told of men in the water fighting over anything that could act as a float.   Hosea C. Aldrich, from Hillsdale County, observed that in the immediate aftermath of the explosion “(b)rave men rushed to and fro in the agony of fear, some uttering the most profane language and others commending their spirits to the Great Ruler of the Universe.”  John Norcutt, from Litchfield, was able to find two pieces of wood which he placed under his arms until he reached a small island temporarily under water, but with a tree to which he could cling.  

Alonzo Van Vlack of Reading, whose picture hangs in the Poorhouse, stood on the burning deck of the Sultana looking for some piece of wood to use as a float.  Through the open floor he saw “women and children running to and fro, screaming for help.”  He tried to reassure them that there would be an attempt to run the boat into the shore, but the noise and confusion was so great that they couldn’t hear him.  Alonzo, like all who survived the Sultana disaster, had to save himself.

Twelve women had chosen to accompany the men in order to care for the sick.  One stood on the burning deck and called to the panicked men in the water next to the steamboat. She was able to calm them so that they could find something to help them float.  As the flames came closer to her, the men urged her to jump into the water.  She refused, saying she might then lose her own reason.  She continued to speak calmly to the men until the flames consumed her, fulfilling her mission to help the paroled prisoners.

In Hillsdale a memorial to the county soldiers who were on the Sultana on her last fatal voyage stands on northeast corner of Courthouse Square. Each year on the anniversary of the sinking of the steamboat a small group of people gather to remember.

JoAnne P. Miller

Here are three website that you might find interesting.

This is for the Sultana Descendants' Association:

This is the Sultana Disaster Museum:

This is a Sultana documentary:

JoAnne P. Miller