The Northern Night Journey on The Old River

Everyday someone is standing on the edge

of this river, staring into time,

whispering mistakenly:

only here. only now.”

Lucille Clifton


If ancient rivers could tell their tales of human life, the stories would be a valuable insight to life on this planet traversing the cosmos over the millennia.

Like Langston Hughes’ The Negro Speaks of Rivers,


I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.

I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.

I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.


In this reflective poem he continues about the mighty Mississippi River:


I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln

went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy

bosom turn all golden in the sunset.


The Mississippi’s rich history is woven into the patchwork quilt of American history and lore.  The Old River was the avenue of commerce and trade both in commodities and humans.

On this ancient river many lives have flowed into eternity without a mention in the history annals.  Before and during the horrendous Civil War the river proffered to an enslaved people along its banks the elusive promise of freedom if one could navigate north away from the tyranny of their oppression.

When the war was ending, it offered renewed hope for Union prisoners of war for a way home.  Steamships transported freed prisoners north to Illinois where they could disembark and head home after the savagery of prison camps and battle fields soaked with innocent blood.

The going price for the steamship captain was $5 a head for enlisted service personnel.  $10 was the going price for an officer and gentleman.

As human history has demonstrated, corruption and greed are jolly companions of graft when that kind of money is involved.  Kickbacks, from the captains to the quartermasters to “buy” their human cargo, were rampant.

Helena, Arkansas. April 26, 1865. Ill-fated Sultana
Helena, Arkansas. April 26, 1865. Ill-fated Sultana

One of those boats was the Sultana.  Its official capacity was 376 passengers.

However, with such a profit to be made the Sultana was packed like a tin of sardines as it headed up the Mississippi to Cairo, Illinois.  Estimates placed the human cargo around 2300-2500 men, women and children after stops in Vicksburg and Helena.

Besides the crew and passengers, the boat was loaded with former Union prisoners of war whose home states were Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia and others.  Added to the cargo were army mules.

The Mississippi was overflowing its banks in April 1865.  This and the excessive weight caused the Sultana’s four boilers to strain as it navigated the heavy current.

Stopping in Memphis for coal, the Sultana only made a few miles upriver before an explosion in the boilers sent over 1700 people into eternity around 2 am that April morning.  Between the raging flames and the moving waters, it was a horror which would haunt the survivors the rest of their lives.

It was reported that the fire could be seen in Memphis as the Sultana burned and drifted downstream to its final landing place.  It was a national tragedy which gained little attention in the newspapers of the country.

Theories and speculations as well as conspiracy theories have been bantered about as to the cause of the explosion on that early morning.  It is obvious the overcrowding and swift waters contributed to the stress on the boilers, and one boiler had been hastily patched so the Sultana could make its journey north.

Of course there are those who believed that it was an act of sabotage by Southern agents known as “boat burners”.  One of the favorite devices was the coal torpedo which was placed in a coal supply.  This would mean that it was placed in the coal yards at Memphis.

Official inquiries were inconclusive.  The guilty parties—be they Union or Southern—never faced human judgement.

What can be said truthfully is that hundreds of lives did not need to be lost to the Old River.  Loading a steamboat like a jam-packed oyster boat was inhuman and a tragedy which did not need to happen, but greed and corruption always take their toll on the innocents.  Unfortunately, these tragedies are forgotten as new ones take their place.

One survivor of the Sultana wrote the following:

‘The men who had endured the torments of a hell on Earth, starved, famished from thirst, eaten with vermin, having endured all the indignities, insults and abuses possible for an armed bully to bestow upon them, to be so soon forgotten does not speak well for our government or the American people.’  James H. Kimberlin


G. D. Williams © 2016

POST 662


Lucille Clifton (June 27, 1936 – February 13, 2010)

Songs of the Mississippi River


April 1865 was a busy month; On April 9, at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia, General Robert E. Lee surrendered. Five days later President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. On April 26 his assassin, John Wilkes Booth, was caught and killed. That same day General Joseph Johnson surrendered the last large Confederate army. Shortly thereafter Union troops captured Confederate President Jefferson Davis. The Civil War was over. Northern newspapers rejoiced.

News of a terrible steamboat tragedy was relegated to the newspaper’s back pages. In a nation desensitized to death, 1,700 more did not seem such an enormous tragedy that it does today.

The accident happened at 2 a.m., when three of the steamship’s four boilers exploded. The reason the death toll was almost exactly equal to the number of Union troops killed at the battle of Shiloh (1,758) was gross government incompetence. The Sultana was legally registered to carry 376 people. She had six times more than that on board, due to the bribery of army officers and the extreme desire of the former POWs to get home.

The steamboat carried as many as 2,100 soldiers, approximately 100 civilian passengers, and 85 crewmen for a possible total of more than 2,300 people, more than six times the vessel’s legal limit….

Suddenly, three of the huge boilers exploded with a volcanic fury that a witness on the shore described as the thundering noise of ‘a hundred earthquakes.’ The blast tore instantly through the decks directly above the boilers, flinging live coals and splintered timber into the night sky like fireworks. Scalding water and clouds of steam covered the prisoners who lay sleeping near the boilers. Hundreds were killed in the first moments of the tragedy. The upper decks of the Sultana, already sagging under the weight of her passengers, collapsed when the blast ripped through the steamer’s superstructure. Many unfortunate souls, trapped in the resulting wreckage, could only wait for certain death as fire quickly spread throughout the hull. Within twenty minutes of the explosion, the entire superstructure of the Sultana was in flames.

It’s a vision of hell, some 2000 men, women and children are trapped in an inferno. Many are emaciated prisoners, on their way home after the civil war. Some eighteen hundred souls would perish that night.  It was one of the worst disasters in US maritime history… and no one knows what caused it.

The purpose of the Sultana Disaster Museum is to tell the story of what happened April 27, 1865, and what led up to it. It is the story of the steamboat and the route it took. It is also the story of those men who were freed from Andersonville and Cahaba prisoner of war camps and how, and why, they were crowded on a grossly overloaded boat. The event and the aftermath were a tragedy in many ways, not just a boat exploding. Learn about how the cargo the Sultana carried which was unloaded contributed to the explosion.

Sultana Descendants Association

Organization dedicated to preserving the memory of the Sultana Disaster, the largest maritime disaster in American history, which occurred on April 27 1865.

Helena, Arkansas. April 26, 1865. Ill-fated Sultana