April 27 marks the anniversary of the explosion of the riverboat Sultana, which blew up on this date in 1865 near Memphis, TN. Overloaded with more than 2,100 passengers—most of them paroled Union prisoners—she went down when three of her four boilers exploded, resulting in nearly 1,200 casualties. It was the worst maritime disaster in U.S. history.
And of all the unexpected places to come across a memorial to the disaster, I found one outside Knoxville, Tennessee.
Other events from that tumultuous April have overshadowed the Sultana’s story in American memory. Civil War buffs know it as a tragic end for Union soldiers who had survived battle and then incarceration in Confederate prison camps. Most of the newly released soldiers had come from the prison in Cahaba, Alabama, near Selma; a few had come from Andersonville in Georgia. Licensed to carry only 376 passengers and crew, Sultana was packed with exuberant men, eager to return home, who piled on at Vicksburg, Mississippi, where the boat had docked for boiler repairs. Overloaded, pushing up-current against an extremely flood-swollen river, the Sultana‘s boilers blew at about 2:00 a.m., seven miles north of Memphis. No one ever determined the cause.
Knoxville sits at the far end of the state from Memphis, about 400 miles as the crow flies. It’s not a place one would expect to find a memorial to a Mississippi riverboat.
When I visited the city last October, Jim Doncaster of the Knoxville Civil War Roundtable took me around to see the Civil War sites, including a trip to Mount Olive Cemetery, off Maryville Pike, in South Knoxville.
Dedicated on July 4, 1916, the monument has an unlikely history. In the years after the disaster, a number of survivor groups cropped up around the country, including a particularly vigorous chapter in Knoxville. One of the Knoxville chapter’s leading voices was the pastor at Mount Olive Baptist Church, and he chose the church’s cemetery as the location for the monument.
Three hundred and sixty-five Tennesseans were aboard the Sultana, and the monument features all of their names, hand-inscribed, survivors and casualties alike. Members of the survivors group commemorated the anniversary at the monument every year; descendants of those survivors meet still.
For more details on the history of the monument, check out this wonderfully written story by Jack Neely, a reporter for the Knoxville Mercury, which I highly recommend.
My thanks to Jim Doncaster for taking me to visit the monument. You can check out some of our other Civil War adventures from the day on the ECW YouTube channel.