Articles & Stories

Following is an article that appeared in the February 2014 issue of The Kentucky Explorer. Readers are welcome to submit articles.

Sultana Explodes In 1865

On The Mighty Mississippi

Hundreds Of Soldiers Die "Homeward Bound" After The Civil War; An Eyewitness Account Of A Horrific Accident

Editor's Note: One of the greatest losses of life from one American vessel was when, at the close of the Civil War, a Mississippi steamer's boilers exploded near Memphis, Tennessee, and hurled over 1,500 Union soldiers to their deaths.
The Sultana was a fine, large vessel, 285 feet long, which plied between St. Louis and New Orleans. She left New Orleans one fine April morning in 1865 on her return to St. Louis with a heavy cargo. She touched Vicksburg on her trip up the river, and took on board 2,100 Union soldiers, who had been prisoners at Columbia, Libby, Andersonville, and other Southern prisons, and who had either been exchanged or freed by the flight of their jailers.
It was in the early hours of the morning on April 27, 1865, when one of the Sultana's boilers burst, tearing out one whole side of the hull which caused a monstrous fire.
The following article was written by W. S. Colvin, which originally appeared in The Kentucky Republican many years ago. During the Civil War, W. S. Colvin was a member of Company F, Sixth Kentucky Cavalry and was aboard the Sultana when the horrific explosion occurred.

By W. S. Colvin
Submitted by Joseph C. Colvin - 1998

n the evening of the April 26, 1865, a splendid steamer was lying at the wharf in the city of Memphis (Tennessee). Her decks were thronged with a vast concourse of soldiers, each animated with the pleasing thought, 'Homeward bound.' They remembered that the long struggle was closed; that battles, sieges, and marches were things of the past, and that they would soon lay aside the trappings of war and mingle in society with friends and relatives from whom they had long been separated.
"Let us give these men more than a mere passing notice. They are the representatives of the six great commonwealths of Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee; who had, some three years before, when the tocsin of war rang out over our beloved land, exchanged the peaceful pursuits to which they had been trained, and gone forth with high resolve and strong arms to do battle for the flag and the Union they loved so well. Behold them as they stand on the decks of this floating palace. They are no longer strong as they used to be. Many of them have suffered from wounds, and all of them have been inmates of Southern prisons. Their steps are no longer elastic, and their whole aspect proclaims the sufferings they have endured.
"The sun now sinks behind the western hills, and the shades of night supplies the place of the great luminary of the day and gives the city at once a beautiful and imposing appearance.
All Retire
"An hour or so passes which is whiled away in happy conversation by these brave men, when all retire to their various resting places and everything sinks in profound repose. The steamer, having discarded the freight consigned to this port, a short time after midnight begins the ascent of the 'Father of Waters' [the Mississippi River]. An hour has passed since she started on her northern journey, with her thousands of brave men sleeping on her broad decks, and she has reached a point nine miles above Memphis, when an explosion, louder and more terrible than the largest piece of artillery is capable of making occurs. In an instant all is confusion. The screams of women and children mingle with the groans of the wounded and dying. Brave men rushed to and fro in agony of fear. Now the fire mounts up through the passage made by the exit of the exploded boiler, and as the boats have all been blown away, the men, to save themselves from the devouring flames, must leap from the deck into the turbid waters of the Mighty Mississippi.
Last to Leave
"The writer was one of the last to leave the burning boat, and never, in his opinion, did human eyes look upon a sadder scene. There, struggling with all the strength of despair, were 2,000 men who, before this, had faced death in almost every conceivable shape. Now many of them were beyond the reach of human aid, and He who was alone able to save them saw fit in His infinite wisdom, to let them perish. There was the steamer all unearthed in flames, which, but a few moments before, was proudly bearing us up the river; all around it out in the river, were those who but a short time ago, were quietly sleeping on its decks and perhaps dreaming of loved ones at home, now struggling for life. Here was one uttering the most profane language and near him was another who was commending his spirit to the Great Ruler of the universe. The cries of the drowning and the roar of the flames, as they leaped heavenward, made a scene that can only be realized by those who pass through that fiery ordeal, a scene that the most vivid imagination cannot paint in words, yet grand and terrible, sublime and indescribable.
An Escape From Death
On Doomed Boat Is Described
"I have often been asked how I made my escape, and, as it might be of the interest to someone, I will answer it here. I was sleeping on upper deck against the pilot house. When aroused the first thing I heard were cries that the shore would be tried for. But in those very moments the boat was burning rapidly. Then panic seized most of those on board, and each seizing anything that he though would float, threw it into the river and jumped after it. I remained until most of the men had left the boat, and, as I had never learned to swim, unfortunately, you will realize that my position was not an enviable one. I believed that my time had come when I must bid farewell to all earthly things. Death was sure, and in a short time at that, if I remained on the boat. There was a possibility, no probability, of escape if I left it. But the thought of being burned to death was too horrible to contemplate, and I pulled a window blind from one of the windows of the pilot house and swung myself down on the outside of the boat. But when I got to the opposite cabin windows the fire came out of them with such force that I loosened by hold and fell into the water. On coming to the surface I was seized by some man, and after considerable struggle with him I released myself and caught a large trunk. This soon floated into the wheelhouse, and I let it go and took hold of the wheel. In a short time the wheel house burned loose and fell over into the river, just as a house would turn over on its side. Of about a dozen men who were in it, I think I am the only one who escaped from it. I finally got on top of it and floated down the river until about 9:00 o'clock, when I was picked up.
Notables on Board
"Among those on board were Major Fiddler, Captains McCowan and Parish and Lieutenant Surber of the Sixth Kentucky Cavalry. They had, by their bravery and frankness, won the esteem and confidence of the whole regiment. Especially was this true of Fiddler, who, though a lion in battle, possessed all the attributes of the Christian gentleman. After the explosion he said to Captain McCowan, 'Mac, I want you to stay with me.' But while he was speaking to the Captain, a young lady approached the edge of the boat and exclaimed, 'My mother. Oh, my mother.' The heroic Fiddler could not see a lady perish without offering his assistance, so he quickly sprang after her and that was the last ever seen of either of them. Captain Parish and Lieutenant Surber also perished, but whether by drowning or the explosion is unknown.
"At length the dawn of the 27th, heralded by the sweet voices of the feather songsters, made its appearance. Ere long the great luminary of the day rises majestically above the horizon, but the melody of the forest songsters falls unheeded on the ears of 1,500 of our companions.
"The sun which they saw sink behind the western hills last evening is not hailed by them this balmy morning. They sleep, nor will they awaken to the tender call of sister, mother, wife. No beautiful prospects will cause them to open their glazed eyes, for they sleep the sleep of death, the 'Father of Waters' is their shroud, their coffin, and their grave."

Joseph C. Colvin, 4439 Osborn Road, Medway, OH 45341, shares this article with our readers. W. S. Colvin was the father of three sons, Fred, Ellis, and Rastus; and two daughters, Mrs. J. H. Kayes and Mrs. John Wilson, all residents of Dekalb, Illinois.