The Civil Was over at last. The four years of fighting brother against brother had taken its toll on the war-torn land. To add insult to injury, a mere two weeks prior President Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated at Ford’s theater. The nation was struggling to repair itself and begin the journey towards Reconstruction.
As soldiers made the arduous journey back home, many found the travel tedious and dangerous as the nations transport infrastructure was not what it is today.
A steamboat named the Sultana was scheduled to carry Union soldiers from New Orleans up the Mississippi River to St. Louis. The 260 foot boat with a 376 passenger capacity was overflowing with over 2,000 soldiers and civilians anxious to return home. Tragically, many of those passengers would never reached their destination when the catastrophe struck in one of the worst maritime disasters in U.S history.
Two days before she exploded, the Sultana stopped in Vicksburg, Mississippi to repair a leaky boiler. The repairman advised the ship’s captain to not continue until the boilers were replaced entirely. The captain, however, had other concerns on his mind instead and what perceived the risk as minor.
His concerns were more of a monetary nature. The federal government had promised to pay $5 for every Union solider and $10 for every officer delivered to St. Louis in a timely manner. Eager to benefit from the financially devastating war, the captain had overcrowded the ship to accommodate over 2,000 troops and 200 civilians, more than six times the capacity.
The captain ignored the repairman and instead suggested that a brief patching of the boilers would do until they reached their destination. His choice had a fatal consequence when on the evening of April 26, 1865, as the ship reached Memphis, her boilers exploded, killing hundreds instantly. For all the thousands of passengers, there was only one lifeboat and limited life preservers. Out of the over 2,000 aboard, many of whom evaded death on the battlefield , 1400 would not survive.
It is said that one person can make a difference. This is true for better or for worse.