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Sinking of the SS Sultana: Topics in Chronicling America

In April 1865, the SS Sultana, carrying over 2,000 recently released Union soldiers, exploded. This guide provides access to material related to the "Sinking of the SS Sultana" in the Chronicling America digital collection of historic newspapers.

Introduction

"The tragic steamer Sultana." March 25, 1898. Lincoln County Leader (Toledo, OR), Image 6. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers.

A boiler explodes, shattering the silence of the night and throwing the hopeless passengers of the SS Sultana into the Mississippi River. Legally allowed to carry 376 people, the Sultana was carrying over 2,300 passengers, most of whom were Union soldiers recently released from Confederate prisons. The estimated death toll increases steadily to 1,700 or 1,800 in the worst maritime disaster in American history. Read more about it!

The information in this guide focuses on primary source materials found in the digitized historic newspapers from the digital collection Chronicling America.

The timeline below highlights important dates related to this topic and a section of this guide provides some suggested search strategies for further research in the collection.

Timeline

April 21, 1865 The SS Sultana, commissioned to transport paroled Union troops leaves New Orleans.
April 26, 1865 The Sultana arrives in Vicksburg, where one of the boilers undergoes repairs. The ship takes on over 2,200 Union troops.
April 27, 1865 A boiler explosion devastates the Sultana. Newspaper estimates vary from 1,400 to 1,700 dead. Others later die from their injuries adding to the death toll.
May 1865 Bodies of those killed in the Sultana disaster continue to be found for weeks after the disaster as they drift downstream and eventually come ashore.
January 1866 The court martial of Captain Fredric Speed for his role in overcrowding the Sultana begins.