Book Review: Destruction of the Steamboat Sultana

Gene Eric Salecker’s Destruction of the Steamboat Sultana: The Worst Maritime Disaster in American History is a combination of modern and historical who-done-it writing. It is as good as it gets! This book, at first glance, is a carefully researched discussion of the horrible steamship explosion (April 27, 1865) that resulted in–literally– the worst maritime disaster in American history. The Sultana was a Mississippi steamship designated to carry released Union prisoners–mostly from Andersonville Prison–from Vicksburg, MI, to Cairo, IL, where they would be discharged from the Army. After leaving Memphis, TN, late on the evening of April 26, the steamship’s boilers exploded, the ship floundered, caught fire, and at least 1,547 people died. Immediate casualties resulted from drowning, fire, injuries suffered during the explosion, and hypothermia. Survivors lived the rest of their lives suffering from injuries and illness. This is the Sultana story most readers know. However, author Salecker takes readers so much further–right into the middle of a mass-murder mystery that includes a coverup, a bribery scam, and government complicity.

Eric Salecker, currently the historical consultant for the Sultana Disaster Museum in Marion, AK, knows how to write history. That he also knows how to construct a mystery becomes apparent as well. First, he introduces the main characters–the men who own and operate the steamboat and the ones in the Army whose mission is to get the long-suffering prisoners of Confederate prison camps from the South back home to the North. Slight hints as to the issues that will eventually sink the Sultana are scattered throughout the text. Readers who know little about the actual incident can choose their villain. Sometimes it seems every Union officer is in on some deal involving the amount of money the Army is willing to pay to ship their officers and enlisted men back home. Two other steamboats jockey for position, trying to get in on the deal, and no one is willing to admit that 2,000 men on one vessel (the Sultana) might be just a tad much, especially considering that her boilers were recently patched with a temporary fix involving inferior iron. When the time comes for the Sultana to blow, the writing is so riveting that a reader cannot put the book down. Those poor women! That baby! Those brave soldiers! It is a scene worthy of a movie with tremendous special effects. The aftermath is, of course, tragic.

One of the admirable consistencies of the author is to follow every soldier’s name with their identifying information. For example: Joe McKelvey [Pvt. Joseph M. McKelvey (Co. C, 102nd OH Inf)] (p. 216). Every soldier mentioned is identified in this manner, indicating the utmost respect for these men. As readers work their way through the book, this identification method contrasts with the lack of respect given them by the government and the army officers in charge of their well-being.

The book ends with several chapters analyzing the discharges (honorable and otherwise) of some men suspected of being responsible for this tragedy. The investigation into the particulars of the explosion, the illegal dealing, and the overloading is meticulous in its research. The court-martial of Captain Frederic Speed, master of the Sultana, reads like a court transcript. Finally, author Salecker goes beyond the disaster to follow up on the lives and experiences of many of the remaining victims, clearly delineating for readers that these people were affected by the selfish carelessness of folks in whom they trusted their lives.

One interesting fact about reading Civil War non-fiction is that the reader is never surprised by the outcome of an incident, a battle, or the War. Of course, the North eventually wins, and Pickett’s Charge never makes it, but readers keep reading anyway. Gene Salecker combines old legends and the most modern science to create a comprehensive, accurate, and up-to-date look at the wreck of the steamship Sultana. He does his job so well that even with the outcome known ahead of time, readers will cheer for all to survive and for Captain Reuben Benton Hatch to get his well-deserved comeuppance. This reviewer says “Huzzah” for Destruction of the Steamboat Sultana: The Worst Maritime Disaster in American History. 

Destruction of the Steamboat Sultana: The Worst Maritime Disaster in American History

By Gene Eric Salecker

Naval Institute Press, 2022, $33.35 hardcover

Reviewed by Meg Groeling

About Meg Groeling

CW Historian
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16 Responses to Book Review: Destruction of the Steamboat Sultana

  1. Katy Berman says:

    An important book, but I don’t think I have the guts to read it.

    • Meg Groeling says:

      It is not especially gory or anything. The accident was horrible–the book is a great read.

  2. Larry De Maar says:

    Thanks for a wonderful review! I agree with your assessment of this book. Mr. Salecker wrote a prior book about the Sultana called: “Disaster on the Mississippi” published in 1996. Since that first book, Gene has found and researched much additional information. I highly recommend his new book.

  3. mark harnitchek says:

    thanks Meg … this one’s going on my list based on your review … Sultana is one of those haunting post-war tragedies — and i believe the worst maritime disaster in history — as these Union soldiers survived years of combat only to drown on the Mississippi.

    • Patricia Thorpe says:

      Not only did they survive years of combat, they also survived starvation which many did not. The bottom line is greed and corruption struck the final blow. I would not be here today if my Great, Great Grandfather Joel Woodson Phillips hadn’t found a tree in the middle of the Mississippi to hang on to in order to survive. This is a great book and thank you Gene Saleker for all your hard work and research to shed light on such a travesty.

      • mark harnitchek says:

        thanks Patricia … that’s a neat piece of family history … i had a
        Civll War great-great grandfather as well but don’t know much about him — other than he like to drink … are there other stories about Grandpa Joel you can share.

  4. A correction–the Disaster Museum is in Marion, Arkansas (not Alaska)

    • c.a.lundquist@gmail.com says:

      And Vicksburg is in Mississippi, (MS).. not Michigan
      The Sultana is a steamboat, not a steamship (as the title states)
      Approximately 1,200 died in the disaster, not 1,547, as Gene makes quite clear.
      And yes, this is an excellent book well worth reading.

      • RE: “Approximately 1,200 died in the disaster, not 1,547, as Gene makes quite clear.”

        Carol, that’s right. In fact, that revised death toll published in this book (1,169), painstakingly compiled over years, is a corrective to the inflated numbers typically associated with the disaster. As new research goes, it’s probably the most important advancement of the Sultana story to come out in many years, and is one of the reasons this book will be cited in future discussions. I was dismayed to see this review recycle the 1,547 figure (which, I noticed, is the figure given in the Wikipedia article on the Sultana).

  5. Salecker’s newest volume builds on and updates his career-long scholarship on the Sultana disaster. It is, as the reviewer says, as good as it gets. As an aside, Salecker does go to pains to distinguish a boat from ship. “The Sultana was not a steamship, however; she was a privately owned Mississippi River steamboat; and she was a boat (i.e., she had a flat bottom and a low freeboard), not a ship.”

    Salecker has also revised the total death toll down to 1,169 (and I think this book is the first place he has published those carefully compiled numbers). He writes, “Although the death toll of 1,169 is far below the 1,500–1,800 that is generally bandied about, the Sultana disaster still ranks as the deadliest maritime disaster in U.S. history. (The second costliest is the burning and sinking of the excursion steamer General Slocum in New York City’s East River on June 15, 1904, with the loss of 1,021 lives)” [Salecker, Gene Eric. Destruction of the Steamboat Sultana (p. 255). Naval Institute Press. Kindle Edition].

  6. Henry Fleming says:

    If there was money to be made off captured soldiers, industrious northerners would find a way. I think of Elmira prison camp and the guy who built a platform across the street it, 2 or 3 stories up and charged people ten cents to look into the camp. I think of the Union camp officers who would sell trinkets made by Confederate POW’s for substantial profits and I think of the overloaded Sultana. Btw, for those unfamiliar with the Sultana, unmentioned in this concise review which captures the empathy of the author, despite his being dead at the time, there was an Abraham Lincoln connection to the Sultana.

    • Ruthann Sumpter says:

      I like your comment with the exception of “northerners”. Unfortunately, there are greedy people everywhere who think only of themselves.

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  8. mjoslin says:

    I am an author of historical novels, my latest is I Fear We Shall Never See Home Again. I have often referred to Gene as the “foremost authority of all things Sultana.” I also consider him as not just a friend, but also as my mentor. When I completed my manuscript, I submitted it to Gene and asked that he read it, and then critique it so that all of the actual events in my book would be accurate.
    I am sure that everyone has heard the expression, “…be careful what you ask for.” Believe me, he did as I asked him to do which resulted in having to make many corrections, some deletions, and a few additions that he felt needed to be included in my book that I had overlooked. I owe Gene a huge debt of gratitude.
    I am still in the process of reading his latest, updated installment about the Sultana, but even though I have not read the entire book, I can say, with great confidence, that Destruction of the Steamboat Sultana: The Worst Maritime Disaster in American History, is no doubt Gene’s greatest edition.

  9. Penny Franey says:

    My Great Great Grandfather, James K Ashley was aboard the Sultana. He survived and returned home to Indiana, and eventually to Pulaski County, Kentucky. He wrote a book called The Small Hoosier in Big Blue Clothes. The only place I have been able to read it is the University of Kentucky Library website. Looking forward to reading Gene’s book and learning more about the Sultana tragedy!

  10. Virgil Mincy says:

    Good review and valid, interesting comments. I have read several other books, including Gene’s first, regarding the Sultana disaster; this book is just icing on the historiccal cake. I think it will be the defining source of information regarding this tragedy. Fortunately, my grandfather was born before my great grandfather boarded the Sultana in VIcksburg. He survived and the rest is history. Sadly, think of all the grandchildren who “never were.”

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