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Helena, Arkansas, The Sultana Steamboat, Explosion and Disaster, historic photo

Helena, Arkansas, The Sultana, Steamboat, Explosion Disaster, Civil War,  historic photo

While this photo is not of high quality and rather grainy, it is none the less, an important photo of a largely unknown and tragic event in American history.

A photo of the Sultana, taken April 26, 1865, at Helena, Arkansas, only a few hours before the steamboat was destroyed in an explosion and fire. This explosion and fire killed between 1,700 and 1,800 or more persons on board, mostly Union soldiers who were former prisoners of war, returning home after the end of the Civil War.


On April 9, 1865, General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant effectively ending the Civil War.

On April 15, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated at Ford's Theatre, Washington, D. C.

On April 24, 1865, the Sultana left Vicksburg, Mississippi headed north on the Mississippi River.

On April 26, 1865, the Sultana docked at Helena, Arkansas where the photo shown here was taken.

On April 27, 1865, at about 2:00 in the morning, three of the four boilers that powered the Sultana exploded.

After the end of the Civil War, Union soldiers who had recently been released from the Confederate prison camps at Andersonville, Georgia and Cahaba, Alabama were brought to a parole camp near Vicksburg, Mississippi in preparation for their return to their homes in the North. Plans were made to place these men on steamboats heading north on the Mississippi River.

One such steamboat was the Sultana which despite having a legal capacity of only 376 passengers, was loaded with about 2,100 Union soldiers and other passengers bringing the total number of passengers on board to 2,427. As can be seen in the photo, every possible place on the steamboat was jammed with passengers.

Why so many passengers on a steamboat that could legally carry only 376 passengers? Apparently, there was something of an off the record deal between the steamboat captain and the Union Army officer who placed the men on board. There was a great of money to be made in taking the men as passengers with an apparent deal to split the money between the steamboat captain and the Army officer.

On April 24, the steamboat Sultana left Vicksburg heading north. It was to be a difficult trip due to the heavy flooding of the Mississippi River. After two days of battling the high waters with many flood hazards including submerged and partly submerged trees, the Sultana arrived at Helena, Arkansas on April 26.

After departing Helena, the next stop was at Memphis where some cargo was loaded and unloaded. The Sultana then continued its journey north. At about 2:00 A. M. on April 27th, one of the steamboat boilers exploded which was quickly followed by the explosion of two more boilers. This led to a fire which quickly consumed the wooden steamboat which burned down to the water line and then sank.

Many of the passengers were killed by the force of the explosions and the fire which followed. Others dived into the river and died of drowning or of hypothermia due to the cold waters caused by the up river spring thaws. As recent prisoners of war, many of these men were in very poor health before they ever began the journey home. In their weakened condition, most simply could not survive the conditions of the flooded Mississippi River.

About 700 passengers did survive and were rescued by other steamboats and were taken to hospitals in Memphis, Tennessee. Many in the city were sympathetic to their plight and sought to be of assistance despite the fact that these were Union soldiers and that this area had been part of the Confederacy and was at war less than three weeeks earlier.

Many of the 700 survivors had severe burns and about 200 of them later died from their injuries.

Exact numbers cannot be determined but is fairly certain than at least 1,700 died and some estimates exceed 1,800 deaths. The official death toll is listed as 1,800. This is ranked as the worst maritime disaster in American history. By comparison, 1,512 died on the Titanic. Everyone has heard of the tragic Titanic disaster, how many have heard of the even worse Sultana disaster?

See also: Andersonville Prison, Andersonville, Georgia

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