Tragedy Rediscovered

New exhibit in Marion examines Civil War-era steamboat explosion

By Bill Dries

When the steamboat Sultana exploded and sank north of Memphis on the Mississippi River in April 1865, it went down near the Arkansas side of the river.

Diane McAdoo, director of the Marion Chamber of Commerce, and Richard Wann of Bass Security, helps set up a new exhibit on the Sultana steamboat tragedy.  

(Photo: Lance Murphey)

Because the river was at a high level and because the river has changed course several times in the intervening 143 years, what’s left of the boat is believed to be beneath a bean field near Marion, Ark.

This month, the Arkansas town opens its first-ever exhibit on the disaster that is the worst maritime disaster in U.S. history. More people died on the Sultana – an estimated 1,900 – than on the Titanic in 1912.

The exhibit at Bella Vista Commons, 2895 Ark. Highway 77, going through March 25 combines photos from the era with the few tantalizing artifacts left from the boat that lit up the Marion and Mound City riverside of farm fields and could be seen from the cobblestones at Memphis.

“The exhibit is some artifacts that were handed down from the survivors. There were only about 400 or 500 survivors. There is a replica of the Sultana … plus there are medals and pictures,” said Diane McAdoo of the Marion Chamber of Commerce, which, along with the city of Marion, is sponsoring the exhibit. “There are not a whole lot of artifacts. Most of it is stories that have been handed down. There’s enough artifacts that people will be interested. We’re also putting together a DVD to show people when they come in.”

Professor Louis Intres of Arkansas State University in Jonesboro is loaning the items.

Among them is a wooden box with a carved alligator handle. The box, according to McAdoo, was made from the wood left from the crate that held an alligator kept on board the Sultana by the boat’s captain and crew.

A plaque behind Marion City Hall by the Daughters of the Revolution commemorates the Sultana steamboat tragedy, the worst maritime disaster in U.S. history. A new exhibit about the Sultana opened to the public on March 6 at Bella Vista Commons in Marion. 

(Photo: Lance Murphey)

The story of the alligator and its box is one of several recounted in “The Sultana Tragedy.” The 1992 book by Jerry Potter is one of two definitive books devoted to the Sultana. The other is “Disaster on the Mississippi” by Gene Salecker.

In Potter’s book, William Lugenbeal, a Union soldier and prisoner of war from Ohio, is credited with seizing on the idea. He found the alligator still in its crate below a staircase on the boat, dragged the crate onto the rapidly burning deck of the Sultana, killed the alligator with his bayonet and threw the crate into the river.

He used it as a raft and was rescued by another boat on the river three miles below Memphis.

Also among the artifacts are some surviving pieces of metal believed to be all that’s left of the boilers of the Sultana. It was a defective patch on one of the boilers that was pinpointed as the likely cause of the explosion. The boiler was repaired in Vicksburg, Miss., at the end of its journey south on the river to pick up Union soldiers just released from Confederate prison camps. The Sultana then left on its northbound journey to take the released prisoners home, with Memphis as their last port.

There are pictures of the prison camps at Andersonville and Cahaba, Ala., where many of the freed prisoners came from. The fee paid by the Union Army for the river transport of the men was investigated as a factor in the severe overcrowding of a boat built to hold about 400 people including the crew. It was packed with more than 2,000 people.

Potter said the Marion exhibit is overdue.

“Sultana,” Helena, Arkansas, 1865

(Library of Congress)

He saw the billboard promoting the Marion exhibit recently on Interstate 55.

“Finally after all of these years maybe the story will not just be a footnote lost in the pages of history,” Potter said. “Maybe people will actually get to know the story and the magnitude of the disaster and the tragic story of the men and the other passengers on the boat.”

Several years ago, the town of Marion erected a marker near Military Road, a road that leads west toward the bean field where what’s left of the Sultana is believed buried. The private property remains off limits to the curious and other sightseers. The Sultana descendants were allowed to visit the field during their 2003 gathering in Memphis.

McAdoo said the temporary exhibit could lead to plans for a permanent exhibit in Marion that might one day grow to include the field.

Potter says those among the dead and wounded who couldn’t be helped at Marion floated below to Memphis over several days and had their own impact on the city’s history as hospitals were overwhelmed.

“It was a horrible event. I don’t think the city has seen anything like it in its history,” Potter said. “You had the yellow fever epidemic (of 1878), but that was slower – over several weeks. This was suddenly you wake up, the sun comes up and the river is literally covered with bodies.”