The combined shocks of the Civil War ending, Abraham Lincoln being shot, and his assassin leading the American people on a 12-day manhunt before being found and killed took an exhausting toll on the American public by the end of April 1865.
While much of the attention focused on these headlines another major event and the lives of over 1,000 men slipped by and became greatly forgotten. Located in Knoxville Tennessee is one of the few stone reminders of a tragedy of the Civil War that became completely overshadowed.
When the S.S. Sultana arrived at Vicksburg Mississippi on April 24th, 1865 it was a sign of relief to the thousands who scrambled on board. The ship was chartered to bring released prisoners of the Civil War back home and the eager prisoners piled on board until an estimated 2,300 people had climbed aboard the ship which was only legally approved for 376. A leak had also been discovered in one of the boilers in Vicksburg but rather than spend the extra days replacing it, a metal patch was simply placed over the hole and the ship set out from Cairo, Illinois.
Sadly the dreams of home swimming through the heads of those on board were shattered at 2 AM on the morning of April 27 when two of the Sultana’s boilers exploded, tearing the ship apart and throwing sleeping soldiers into the icy river. For hours men hung onto debris and trees or floated in the Mississippi River clinging to life while many others left on the ship burnt to death or drowned. The final death toll is still staggering even today with 1,700 lives being lost from the explosion on the 260 foot long ship.
Despite the catastrophic nature of the 1865 event, the tragedy fell victim to timing and was greatly ignored due to John Wilkes Booth being killed in Virginia the previous day. To the war-numbed citizens of the United States the death of 1,700 former prisoners was nothing compared to the horrors of the Civil War and the news of Lincoln’s assassin being killed.
It would take over 50 years for the first memorial to the victims of the Sultana disaster to be placed. Survivors of the wreck and those that assisted in rescue efforts witnessed the dedication on July 4th, 1916 in the Mount Olive Cemetery located in Knoxville Tennessee.