On this day in 1865 the greatest maritime disaster in United States history occurred, larger even than the much more famous sinking of the Titanic. Specifically, more than 1,500 people were killed in the explosion and sinking of the steamboat SS Sultana on the Mississippi River. The event did not receive as much media coverage, because it was somewhat overshadowed by the death of Lincoln’s assassin John Wilkes Booth that happened the day before.
The Steamboat SS Sultana sailed from New Orleans to St. Louis on the great Mississippi River. That river is known to Europeans from Mark Twain’s famous novel which portrays Mississippi steamboat travel (Huckleberry Finn). Numerous passengers embarked on the SS Sultana steamboat in Vicksburg, probably northern soldiers who were recently released from the southern camps and wanted to get home as soon as possible. The boat reportedly had a capacity for approximately 376 passengers, and it was crammed with perhaps up to a whopping 2,400 people.
Near the city of Memphis in the middle of the night, at around 2:00 a.m., the steamer boiler suddenly exploded. The explosion threw some of the people in the water, and the ship caught fire from the scattered embers from the boiler. Mississippi River was at that time swollen because of spring snowmelt in the north. It is believed that between 1,300 and 1,900 people were killed. The official number is 1,547, but it will probably never be accurately determined. For comparison, around 1,503 passengers were killed at Titanic sinking (it’s also impossible to give an exact number because of unreliable passenger lists).