The Sultana Disaster

April 1865 saw the end of the Civil War. For four long years, people asked when this cruel war would be over. Men of both the Union and Confederacy could finally make their way home. For some, it was as easy as grabbing a horse and riding towards their family. For others, it was more difficult. Prisoners of War (POWs) in both the north and south would begin the wary journey home. Specifically in the South, Union Prisoners were leaving one of the most notorious prisons, Andersonville, and Cahaba. The easiest way the transport them home was via boat.

Image of the Sultana, days before her disaster. Library of Congress Image

Prisoners from Andersonville and Cahaba were put on a boat called the Sultana. From ” On April 23, 1865, the vessel docked in Vicksburg to address issues with the boiler during a routine journey from New Orleans. While in port, it was contracted by the U.S. Government to carry former Union prisoners of war from Confederate prisons, such as Andersonville and Cahaba, back into Northern territory. In order to fulfill the lucrative contract, J. Cass Mason, the Sultana’s captain, opted to patch the leaky boiler rather than complete more extensive and time-consuming repairs. Fearing that his colleagues were taking bribes to transport prisoners on other boats, Union Army Captain George Williams, who oversaw the operation, hastily ordered that all former prisoners at the parole camp and hospital at Vicksburg be transported on the Sultana.  Although it was designed to only hold 376 persons, more than 2,000 Union troops were crowded onto the steamboat – more than five times its legal carrying capacity.  Despite concerns of overloading from several officers, Williams refused to divide the men, insisting that they travel on one vessel.The Sultana was a 260-foot-long wooden steamboat, built in Cincinnati in 1863, which regularly transported passengers and freight between St. Louis and New Orleans on the Mississippi River.”

On April 27, 1865, the Sultana burst into flames. “Shortly after leaving Memphis, Tennessee on April 27th, the overstrained boilers exploded, blowing apart the center of the boat and starting an uncontrollable fire. Many of those who were not killed immediately perished as they tried to swim to shore. Of the initial survivors, 200 later died from burns sustained during the incident.  Records indicate that 1,800 men died, making the Sultana incident the deadliest maritime disaster in U.S. history.”

One of my ancestors was aboard the Sultana. Reuben Wesley Crigler, born June 8, 1837, was my 3rd great-granduncle. He enlisted in Cambridge, Illinois in August 1862, 112th Infantry, Company C. In a book about the history of the 112th Illinois Infantry, this entry on Wesley (his preferred name) appears:

History of the 112th Regiment of Illinois Volunteer Infantry

His name appears on a document about the Sultana Disaster, Record of Escaped Prisoners of War, USA. At the very bottom of the document his name and information:

View entire record
Crigler, Wesley, Private, 112th Illinois Infantry, captured at Knoxville, TN Nov 17, ’63 escaped to Savannah

Wesley eventually returned home and moved to Nebraska. He died on May 7, 1911 in Sulpher Springs, Missouri where he was getting an illness treated.

12 May 1911
Lincoln, Lancaster, Nebraska, United States of America
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