The Legal Aftermath of the ‘Sultana’ Disaster

The Civil War was over. Lee had surrendered to Grant at Appomattox. Lincoln’s life had ended at the hand of an assassin. But another event occurred in that fateful month that has passed almost unnoticed by history.

On April 24, 1865, the side-wheeler steamboat Sultana was docked at Vicksburg, Miss. Its mission was to transport Union soldiers freed from Confederate prisons at Andersonville, Ga., and Cahaba, Ala.

Temporary repair work was being done on one of the boat’s four boilers. When completed, the boilermaker told the captain that the boiler was not safe.

When the Sultana pulled away from the dock, it may have had the largest number of passengers ever carried up the Mississippi River. Built to carry only 376, more than 2,400 people were aboard. Included in the number were more than 500 soldiers from Yankee East Tennessee.

At 2 a.m. on Thursday, April 27, about seven miles above Memphis, the defective boiler exploded. Within 20 minutes the entire superstructure was in flames.

How many died? No one knows for sure, but the death toll was probably more than 1,800. That exceeds the 1,517 who would later die aboard the Titanic. The Sultana disaster was and remains America’s worst.

In the aftermath, the first military commission convened within hours to investigate. In all, three commissions (or boards of inquiry) took testimony. The strange investigative conclusion was that the Sultana was “overcrowded” but “not overloaded.”

In January of 1866 the sole court-martial was convened to try Captain Frederic Speed, who was involved in the Vicksburg loading. After several long continuances a guilty verdict was returned on June 9 for neglect of duty and lack of authority in the placement of so many soldiers aboard the one steamer. But Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt disagreed with the verdict. Consequently Secretary of War Edwin Stanton granted Speed an honorable discharge. He never returned to his home in Maine. Instead he became a lawyer in Vicksburg and later was appointed a criminal court judge.

As the years passed the Sultana disaster has become a mere footnote lost among the pages of history. Silt of the meandering Mississippi River concealed the wreckage. Today the remains of the Sultana are buried deep beneath soybean fields on the western side of the stream.


Jerry O. Potter JERRY O. POTTER is a 1975 graduate of the University of Memphis Law School, and received his bachelor of science degree from the University of Tennessee at Martin. He is a shareholder and vice president in The Hardison Law Firm in Memphis and does primarily health care malpractice defense and mediation. He is a fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers. Potter has published several articles and one book, The Sultana Tragedy.

 

 

AUTHOR_GOES_HERE DONALD F. PAINE is a past president of the Tennessee Bar Association and is of counsel to the Knoxville firm of Paine, Tarwater, and Bickers LLP. He lectures for the Tennessee Law Institute.