The Civil War steamboat's sinking 147 years ago killed about 1,800 people (300 more than Titanic), the worst shipwreck in U.S. history.
Although its 147th anniversary was Friday, the worst shipwreck in U.S. history is seldom talked about, as films, headlines and lavish re-creations have focused on the Titanic.
The S.S. Sultana, a steamboat carrying soldiers newly released from Confederate war camps to their homes in Ohio and Tennessee, sank abruptly in the Mississippi River on a dark night near Memphis after a boiler exploded and sent the men flying into the chilly water. It was April 27, 1865. The wreck killed about 1,800 people.
"It's one of the most incredible historic stories in America that nobody knows about," said Jerry O. Potter, author of the 1992 book "The Sultana Tragedy: America's Greatest Maritime Disaster."
"These prisoners of war were headed home and just a few days from finally seeing their families again," said Norman Shaw, founder of the Association of Sultana Descendants and Friends. "That's the heartbreak of this story."
Although the Mississippi River disaster killed about 300 more people than Titanic's 1,514 casualties, the Sultana and its victims have been virtually forgotten.
"I'm still amazed that so few people know about it," Potter said. "I mean, there's never been a movie about the Sultana. And the story to me is more compelling than that of the Titanic."
The steamer, known to have a defective boiler, was severely overpacked. Its legal capacity was 376, but it was carrying more than seven times that many passengers when disaster struck.
Even at the time, the wreck got relatively little attention.
John Wilkes Booth had shot President Abraham Lincoln two weeks earlier, and Lincoln's funeral train procession was still making its way around the North. The day before the Sultana wreck, Union cavalry men had tracked Booth to a Virginia barn and killed him. Earlier that month, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee had surrendered. Coming off a now unfathomable period when 600,000 people were killed by fellow countrymen, the public, Shaw and Potter said, was callous about death.
The only official gathering to commemorate the Sultana anniversary this weekend is expected to draw 60 to 70 people to Cincinnati, where workers built the ill-fated ship in 1863. The weekend, organized by Shaw, of Knoxville, Tenn., features a documentary screening, talks from historians and a Civil War bus tour.
Shaw created the descendants' group in 1987 to revive and spread the Sultana story, although he didn't have an ancestor on board. Planning for the 2015 sesquicentennial is under way, he said, and it includes the possibility of opening a museum dedicated to the Sultana wreck in Marion, Ark., the last port where the steamer stopped.
Carly Worth of Camarillo, Calif., had never heard of the Sultana wreck until a few years ago, when a relative sent an obituary of her ancestor, Jonathon Bashir. According to the 1877 newspaper account, Bashir, a Union soldier who had been held at Andersonville, a prison camp in Georgia, was "on board the unfortunate steamer which was burned on the Mississippi River."
Aside from those with a keen interest in the Civil War or in maritime disasters, it's tough to find people who have heard of the unfortunate steamer.
Sitting on a Manhattan bench looking out at a shimmering Hudson River near the 12th Street pier at which the Titanic should have docked in 1912, Ruth Kassanga guessed that the ocean liner's encounter with an iceberg prompted the worst shipwreck of all time. "I'm surprised I've never heard" of Sultana, she said.
Nor did the name Sultana ring a bell for Luisi Amado, also lounging near the pier.
"Why is it we don't recall that one?" she questioned.
Of 10 people near the dock asked what the worst U.S. shipwreck of all time was, all answered Titanic or said they didn't know.
Perhaps our fascination with Titanic has to do with a past and present societal obsession with celebrity. Titanic carried some of the day's most known and most affluent figures.
"History," Potter said, "tends to remember the rich and the famous and forget the common people."
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