April 11, 2012
BOSTON — Pop quiz: If someone asked you what the "Sultana" was … how would you answer? A restaurant, a band, a kind of grape?
Here are some guesses from the WGBH newsroom:
Answer: It's a ship. (Though it is also a kind of grape.)
Don't be surprised if you, like the WGBH staff, didn't know. The 100th anniversary of the Titanic is making headlines but the Sultana has a surprisingly low profile … considering it's the worst maritime disaster in U.S. history.
"It is kind of amazing, because I hadn't heard about it growing up either," said Alan Huffman, author of a book about the incident. "The Sultana is a story that did sort of take second fiddle to the Titanic for a lot of reasons but it's just as remarkable a saga."
In April 1865, the Sultana steamed out of Vicksburg up the Mississippi to take Union prisoners of war home. The boat was designed to carry about 370. But the steamboat company was paid by the head — and squeezed on eight times that. Just north of Memphis, the boilers blew up. At least 1700 people died.
Huffman pointed to the poignancy of the situation. "These guys had all survived the war and they had been sent to really awful prison camps in the Confederacy where their chances of dying were even greater than they were in battle, then they had been marched on foot, many of them died on the way because they were already weak, and then put on this boat and they think finally, it's over and we're on our way home," he said.
So why have most people never heard of the Sultana?
The obscurity started right away, Huffman said: The New York Times only ran a paragraph on the disaster.
One explanation: assassin John Wilkes Booth had been killed just the day before. But Huffman suspected that the larger context of the end of the Civil War mattered more: "I think that the American public was really tired of hearing about thousands of people dying."
The Mississippi has since changed its course, so the site of the tragedy is now Arkansas farmland. The boat has never been exhumed.