Destruction of the Steamboat Sultana: The Worst Maritime Disaster in American History, by Gene Eric Salecker

I recently read this book and beyond the discussion of the tragedy associated with the explosion that led to the loss of 1200 lives, I learned a lot about the steamboats that sailed the Mississippi and its tributaries in the mid-1800s.

Before I read the book, all I could tell you of side-wheel riverboats was that they had flat bottoms, had a deck for engines and cargo and an upper deck for passengers and that the rivers of today were nothing at all like the rivers they cruised. Many steamboats had relatively short lives because they caught fire, were damaged by ice, run aground, struck snags, and sank or were involved in the war. They were very profitable in good times and suffered at others.

The Sultana was a sidewheel Mississippi steamboat carrying almost two thousand recently-released Union prisoners of war back north at the end of the Civil War. At 2:00 a.m. on April 27, 1865, when the boat was seven miles above Memphis, her boilers exploded.

Because she carried released/paroled Union prisoners of war, there were the inevitable conspiracy theories blaming the confederates. I suspect that had I been alive then, I might have succumbed to considering that possibility myself.

The investigation of the boiler explosion then and now pointed to metal fatigue in one of her boilers that exploded, setting off the explosion of two more and leaving one intact for examination. The grossly and unsafely overloaded Sultana disaster magnified the tragedy and the numbers of dead and mauled.

Gene Eric Salecker did an outstanding job framing the tragedy,  exploring the effect, and looking for the cause.  The book is the result of twenty-five years of continued research. Many people survived the disaster including civilian passengers, paroled prisoners, crewmembers and rescuers. There were many myths that grew up around this maritime disaster. Reading the book took me through those last fateful moments of the disaster and the tragic aftermath.

I highly recommend this 528-page book to those of you who have an interest in this topic.


Available from the Naval Institute Press and from Amazon


  1. Sultana’s tragedy was pushed into obscurity because it occurred within days of Lincoln’s assassination, rendering it one of the most obscure conclusions to the Civil War.

    • That’s absolutely true. It also followed almost immediately on Lee’s surrender and the end of the war – thus the overload of thousands of paroled prisoners on her when she exploded.

  2. I remember reading somewhere that had a quote from a Brit around that time, saying that the Yanks would continue to build bigger and bigger steam engines, running on higher and higher pressure, until they create one so large that when it would blow up it would destroy the world.
    I suspect it was a bit tongue-in-cheek.

    • The Brit was not all that far wrong; steam power was still very young in those days. We tend to think of “engineering” as a very scientific process wherein all things are very well known but in reality, it starts out as one mook who builds something that either works and is then lightened up until it fails, or it fails and gets built heavier until it holds up. “Build back better” as it were. Then that mook or another mook whangs together a set of “calculations” that purports to predict the failure point so that it may be avoided. Eventually a happy medium is derived from all that trial and error and safety contraptions are developed and thus the system is confidently idiot proofed and we all sleep better at night.

      Unfortunately, that sometimes leads to better idiots and thus we have inconveniences such as space shuttle explosions and pedestrian bridge collapses and ships sinking after running athwart giant icebergs and Sultana going kerblooey-on-youey. Ooops.

      • As usual, the Sultana disaster led to an investigation and to regulations banning that type of boiler. There was a problem with metallurgy and the water that they took on (river in flood) was very silty and the muck settled into the engines.

        One boiler had been recently patched and there was a suspicion that the patch may have given way, but that turned out not to be the case. Metal fatigue combined with overheating from the mud that settled meant that it just blew.

        • And, that’s still a problem even today. There are people making a good living selling boiler chemicals to help with scale and corrosion. Occasionally you’ll hear about one blowing up someplace, generally because of poor maintenance and/or poor training or some other combination of managerial neglect/incompetence. Sometimes I look at the way their other machinery is taken care of and the certain knowledge they probably aren’t taking any better care of that big kettle scares hell out of me. Never mind that the piping system was almost certainly contracted out to the lowest bidder.

          Sand Pebbles is my favorite Steve McQueen movie. Richard McKenna knew his trade very well; it’s a shame he didn’t live to see it.

  3. Yeah, steam engines just exploded pretty regularly, back then. People were less squeamish about risk.

    The thing that amazes me about the riverboats of the time, is just what tiny, shallow creeks they would run up and down, way the hell up into the upper midwest. I would never have thought most of those rivers navigable beyond canoes.


    • I recall reading (I think that it was The Crow Killer, pub 1926) a book about John Johnson (Hollywood: Jeremiah Johnson). He’d cut firewood for paddlewheel boats in the fall and it would season over winter. When they came up the Missouri River into Montana they’d leave money for him in a can.

      A lot of that early river travel was based on shipping companies with government contracts. The Army made temporary contracts by the hundred pounds or by the piece for government transportation. Under the contract system, owners and captains were paid a set amount for each trip based on the number of troops or cargo/freight carried. The standard rate varied over time but the rule of thumb was 1/3 of a cent per man per mile for enlisted men and a penny a mile for officers. Since the Missouri River is about 2,341 miles long – much of it navigable during the spring flood, it was a lucrative trip. By 1858, there were 130 steamboats on the Missouri.

      The Platte River was “too thick to drink, too thin to plow” and even shallow draft paddle boats couldn’t sail up it.

    • One of the reasons side-wheelers were preferred over stern-wheelers was the ability of the side-wheeler to literally walk across the ground using it’s side wheels. Seriously. Not far, but a flat-bottomed side-wheeler could crawl over sandbars and mudflats.

      On the other hand, stern-wheelers were preferred because they could be narrower of beam and the wheel was in the back thus giving more unobstructed cargo and passenger space.

  4. The whole river system is different now that dams are in place. It’s very difficult to envision how was then by looking at it today – under regulation.

  5. 528 pages!? Holy crappola, that’s some serious in-depth research for a single event. Only 800 survived out of 2000? What, they couldn’t swim? I may have to read the book. Questions abound.

    • The book contains first-hand accounts of survivors. Everybody experienced something different, but a number of people were literally thrown up and off the boat when the boilers blew, landing in the water some distance away. The book is meticulously researched.

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