In 1865, a cash-strapped steamboat captain learned that he could earn $2.75 per head transporting former Union POWs back up north.
Though the Sultana needed repairs, Capt. James Cass Mason wouldn’t risk losing time. Having steamed into Vicksburg, he loaded 2,137 passengers and POWs onto a ship with a legal capacity of 376. Under the immense weight and pressure, the Sultana’s boilers exploded near Memphis, rendering the ship a drifting inferno.
With a death toll of over 1,200, the Sultana explosion is one of the deadliest maritime disasters in American history. It was overshadowed in the news, however, by Lincoln’s assassination.