No single event during the war so startled and shocked the North as that which has since been known as the "Sultana Disaster." On the 23rd day of April, 1865, the steamer Sultana left Vicksburg with a total of passengers and crew of 2,141 persons. Of this number thirty-five were Federal officers and 1,996 Federal soldiers, recently having been released from Catawba, Enterprise and Andersonville prisons. The remaining 110 were made up of the crew and passengers taken on board at points between New Orleans and Vicksburg.
The physical condition of these officers and soldiers is well known to those familiar with the treatment received by Federals in Southern prisons, long confinement in stockades, without protection from heat or cold, or rain, without adequate food or clothing, deprived in sickness of medical aid and the commonest comforts. All were weak and many were absolutely helpless in the presence of danger.
The estimated capacity of the boat was 376 persons, besides the crew. The overloading of the boat made it necessary to make any disposition of the men practicable. They occupied all available room. They were stowed away wherever space was found to place them. The trip up the river to the place of the tragedy was made without the occurence of any unusual incident. The last stop was at Memphis, at which place the boat took on coal. At about 3 o'clock on the morning of the 27thof April, 1865, when opposite Fogleman's Landing, some eight miles above Memphis, the steamer's boiler exploded. The vessel took fire immediately and was soon burned to the water's edge.
It were idle to attempt a description of the scene that followed that explosion. It was 3 o'clock in the morning. The water was very cold. Many passed from the sleep of life to the sleep of death without awakening. Others without warning found themselves rudely awakened by contact with the icy water of the Mississippi. They saw the fierce river lit up by the burning steamer; saw their comrades struggling with the waves, heard their appeals for help, without the power to respond. They fought bravely with the darkness and cold and flood for life, sometimes even to death for