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VOL. 129 | NO. 125 | Friday, June 27, 2014

PBS TV Investigates Steamboat Sultana Explosion

By Bill Dries

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After a decade on PBS tracking down the back stories of historic artifacts, the producers of the television program “History Detectives” are focusing on some of American history’s larger mysteries and darker corners.

And it brought them to Memphis to look into the 1865 explosion of the steamboat Sultana earlier this year for the first episode in the revamped series that debuts Tuesday, July 1, on WKNO-TV.


“I would bet that while there are a lot of people in Memphis that know the story of the Sultana there are probably more that don’t,” said Wes Cowan, the show’s co-host and investigator. “Of the stories that we did this summer, the Sultana, I think, is probably of the four we did the one that most Americans will never have heard about and will be shocked to find out about.”

The steamboat, which was built to hold several hundred passengers at the most, exploded north of Memphis in April 1865 loaded with perhaps as many as 2,000 people – most of them Union soldiers who had just been freed from some of the worst Confederate prison camps at the end of the Civil War and were on their way home at war’s end.

The 1,500 people killed just after the Sultana left the cobblestones on the Memphis riverfront, its last port, are more people than were killed in the 1912 sinking of the Titanic. The Sultana is the worst maritime disaster in U.S. history but it was overshadowed by news of the war’s end and the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln that same month.

"Sultana," Helena, Arkansas, 1865

(Library of Congress)

“We started with the official investigation that the government called for after the disaster,” Cowan said of the fresh look at the 149-year-old catastrophe. “Then we started looking at the personalities that were involved and so many conspiracy theories that were being floated around in the wake of the disaster.”

The episode concludes patronage by Lincoln paved the way for severe overcrowding of the Sultana as it struggled upriver with a boiler that had just been patched at Vicksburg. Corrupt military officials at Vicksburg continued packing the Sultana with the freed prisoners even as empty boats were docked beside it. And the owners of the boat were paid a premium by the government per soldier with extra pay for officers.

“It was just a matter of rolling up your sleeves and looking at all of the different sources. No one was going to point the finger at Washington as being culpable in any of this in a real serious way when in fact the ultimate culpability for the disaster leads right to Abraham Lincoln’s White House,” Cowan said. “Military contractors have always taken advantage of that situation. … Where there’s money and there’s a government, there’s always somebody willing to take advantage of the situation.”

Meanwhile, those coming out of the prison camps were willing to sleep on a crowded deck to get home as quickly as possible.

“If you were a mother and father in Illinois and your son had been in Andersonville prison and he was an emaciated skeleton, you wanted to get your baby home just as fast as you could to take care of him,” Cowan said. “So what’s five bucks?”

He and the show’s investigative team also took a scientific look at the cause of the explosion itself including theories of sabotage by Confederate sympathizers at war’s end.

“We investigated that pretty hard. The fact is they just don’t hold up. … There’s a much easier explanation for what happened,” Cowan said pointing to the boat’s movements instead of the recent patch of the boiler in Vicksburg.

“It seems to be more the changing level of water in the boiler, sloshing that water around in a red hot boiler,” he added. “The Sultana had to tack back and forth against a pretty violent current and with it being top heavy, the boat was probably rolling back and forth in that current. Red-hot water getting on a weak spot in a boiler, that’s probably what happened.”

The show features a trip to the beanfield in Marion, Ark., where the river once ran that is believed to be the final resting place of what is left of the Sultana. Cowan traveled there with descendants of the survivors.

“There’s nothing to see there,” he said, aside from chips of old firebricks that the boilers may have sat on. “It was pretty inspiring to recognize that somewhere beneath the flood plain of the Mississippi River there are hundreds of Union soldiers that are probably buried down there. … The fact that it’s still there, it’s pretty inspiring.”

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