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It is a story of what happens when a military foe collapses, of great sums of money and temptation, of high risks routinely taken in times of war, and of tragic destinies for hundreds of soldiers whose hopes for a bright future ended in the brutally cold waters of a flood-swollen Mississippi.

Photograph shows the overloaded steamboat Sultana on the Mississippi River the day before her boilers exploded and she sank on April 27th. The passengers included ca. 1,880 Union soldiers heading home at the end of the Civil War; more than 1,100 of these men died in the disaster.

Photograph shows the overloaded steamboat Sultana on the Mississippi River the day before her boilers exploded and she sank on April 27th. The passengers included some 1,880 Union soldiers heading home at the end of the Civil War; more than 1,100 of these men died in the disaster.

Disaster on the Mississippi : the Sultana Explosion, April 27, 1865  Gene Eric Salecker  Annapolis, Md. : Naval Institute Press, c 1996  Hardcover. 1st ed. and printing. xii, 346 p., [10] p. of plates : ill., maps ; 24 cm. Includes bibliographical references (p. [327]-335) and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG

Overshadowed by bigger headlines in April 1865, the explosion of the Mississippi riverboat Sultana claimed the lives of more than 1,800 recently freed Union POWs.

A short distance outside Memphis, Tennessee, on the Arkansas side of the Mississippi River, is an old building fronted by a historical marker representing all that remains of a once-thriving settlement known as Mound City. A quarter-mile beyond is a seasonal fishing camp nestled along a short cutoff that was previously part of the Mississippi. Lying a dozen or so feet beneath the soil of a nearby farm field that was formerly the river bed are charred wood fragments and a scattering of metal pieces — all that remains of the Sultana , in her time a popular sidewheel steamboat carrying passengers and cargo as far south as New Orleans. Today the name Sultana carries another, more grim connotation — that of the greatest maritime disaster on U.S. inland waters.

The tragedy took place at a time when America’s attention was fixed on the closing events of its great Civil War. A President had been assassinated, Rebel armies were laying down their arms, and a nation was taking stock of the cost in lives and treasure. Measured against these pressing national concerns, the fate of one steamboat paled in comparison. Still, the system went through the motions. Hearings resulted in reports that few bothered to read; in an act of retributive justice, one individual was brought to trial for his part in the matter; and there were countless instances of private despair as death notifications spread across the land.

Except for those directly involved, the Sultana disaster passed quickly from the headlines. Nearly lost in the process was a complex matter that reached well beyond the actual incident itself. It is a story of what happens when a military foe collapses, of great sums of money and temptation, of high risks routinely taken in times of war, and of tragic destinies for hundreds of soldiers whose hopes for a bright future ended in the brutally cold waters of a flood-swollen Mississippi.
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