On the early morning of April 27, 1865, the Sultana exploded on the Mississippi River near Memphis, killing nearly 1,800 of the almost 2,400 passengers onboard. Many of those were former Union soldiers, on their way home from Confederate prison camps following the end of the Civil War. The boat sank near Marion and became, and remains, America’s greatest maritime disaster.
Most likely, many people have never heard of the Sultana and do not realize the significance of the tragedy. One reason it escaped the attention of the citizens of the United States is because the country was still reeling from the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, a mere 12 days before. Of course, news was not as easily assimilated in 1865 as it is today. So the tragedy of the Sultana was overshadowed.
The Titanic, which sank 47 years later after striking an iceberg, was a worldwide phenomenon, not only after the tragic events but also in the months before it sailed. It was the largest ship in the world as it made its maiden voyage…and carried some of the wealthiest people in the world, including John Jacob Astor IV and his wife, Macy’s owner Isidor Strauss, and industrialist Benjamin Guggenheim. The sinking of the Titanic made headlines for months.
The “numbers” surrounding the two ships are a study in contrasts. The Sultana was 260 feet long, whereas the Titanic was 882 feet in length. The Sultana was 42-feet wide and the Titanic was over twice the width, at 92 ½ feet. The Sultana was four stories high, from keel to the top of the chimneys. The Titanic was 11 stories. The Sultana was completely made of wood; the Titanic had a steel hull. But the most overwhelming of the numbers has to be the passengers. At the time of the explosion, the Sultana was carrying nearly 2,300, even though the legal limit of the vessel was 375, including crew. The Titanic was carrying 2,227…the capacity was 3,327. However, only 20 lifeboats were on the Titanic, which could accommodate only 1,178 people. Of the passengers on the Sultana, nearly 1,800 died and 583 survived. On Titanic, 1,522 perished and 706 were saved.
Of course, the Titanic, thanks to numerous movies, documentaries, and the years-long search for the wreckage, has never really left the public’s mind. And, until recently, the historic sinking of the Sultana has virtually faded from memory. But over the past decade, books have been written about the ill-fated steamboat. Most recently, producer Mark Marshall and executive producer Sean Astin (of Lord of the Rings fame) began a documentary project on the Sultana.
And closer to home, Sultana Disaster Museum opened its doors. Located at 104 Washington St. in Marion, the museum is located in an interim facility, and will be open at the location until the permanent museum is completed. The current facility houses a large, detailed replica of the Sultana, as well as photographs and artifacts relating to the tragic event. You can learn more about the museum by visiting www.sultanadisastermuseum.org or by calling 870-739-6041.