April 27, 2015

It Happened on April 27th

This picture of the Sultana was taken the day before its explosion.

Sultana Steamboat Explosion, 1865

On April 27, 1865, the Mississippi riverboat, the SS Sultana, exploded near Memphis due to a faulty boiler. An estimated 1800 passengers were killed, most of them Union soldiers returning home from Confederate prisoner of war camps.

The Sultana was a wooden steamship, and fairly new. It had been commissioned in 1863 and ran regular routes between New Orleans and St. Louis. Frequently, the U.S. War Department had commissioned it to transport troops.

On its last trip, the Sultana stopped in Vicksburg, Mississippi to pick up prisoners. It also needed repairs to its boiler. A complete boiler replacement would have taken three days, so a partial repair was made. A bulged area was removed from one of the boilers and a patch of inferior metal replaced it. That repair only took one day.

In the meantime, the ship had filled up with Union Prisoners who were eager to get home. They had recently been released from Confederate prisoner of war camps (the Civil War had ended only weeks before) and most of them were returning to Ohio.

The boat filled up quickly as soldiers clamored to get on board. The Sultana had a legal capacity of 376. It is thought that approximately 2400 got on board, filling every available inch of space.

The explosion occurred at about 2:00 am, when the steamship was about eight miles north of Memphis. The most likely cause was low levels of water in the boilers. The river took a series of twists and turns as it progressed northward. Since the ship was so overcrowded and top heavy, with every turn the ship listed to one side or the other, sloshing water from one of the four connected boilers to the next. The empty boilers, with the fires still going, developed hot spots in the metal. When the water returned, it turned to steam as soon as it hit the hot spots, which caused sudden high pressure, weakening the metal. If the boilers had maintained a high water level, there would have been less damage to the boilers.

When the boilers exploded, a large section of the ship was immediately destroyed. The remaining portions of the ship were ignited by hot coals and burst into flame. The fire could be seen eight miles away in Memphis.

Illustration of the event from Harper's Weekly.
Many of the Union soldiers were already ill or weakened by their stay in the prisoner of war camps. Those that survived the initial blast, and the fire, found themselves plunged into the Mississippi, now extremely cold from the spring run-off. Many died of drowning or hypothermia. It was an hour before the first rescue ship reached them.

About 500 survivors (some who had been found in trees along the river banks) were taken to hospitals in Memphis. About 300 of those died later of their burns or from exposure. All of the ship's officers died. The exact number of deaths is unknown -- the official count is 1547, but historians believe it may have been as high as 1800.

A curious footnote to the story is that one man claimed responsibility for the blast. His name was Robert Louden, and he was a resident of St. Louis and a former Confederate saboteur. According to his business partner, Louden made a deathbed confession that he had sabotaged the ship by "coal torpedo", a device that had been invented during the Civil War for just this purpose. Iron shells resembling pieces of coals were created, filled with gunpowder, and sealed with beeswax. The device was then rolled in coal dust and placed in a coal pile to be used in a ship's boiler. The torpedo itself wasn't powerful enough to destroy a ship, but it could cause the explosion of a boiler, which was.

Les Mignons were favorites of Henry III, above.

The Duel of Les Mignons, 1578

"Les Mignons" means, literally, "the darlings" or "the dainty ones." They were the favorites of King Henry III of France, and contributed greatly to his unpopularity among the people. They dressed in an elaborate, effeminate style, were rumored to have unorthodox sexual preferences, and received great -- and generally undeserved -- favors from the king.

One of Henry's chief rivals was Henry, Duke of Guise. On April 27, 1578, the two court factions decided to reenact the Battle of the Horatii and the Curiatii. This story goes back to a long war between Rome and Alba Longa in the 7th century BC. According to the story, it was decided that the whole war would be decided by a battle between two sets of triplets: the Horatii, representing Rome, and the Curiatii representing Alba Longa.

In the original battle, two of the Horatii were killed, and the three Curiatii, who had been wounded, chased the remaining Horatius. In the chase, the Curiatii became separated and the Horatius was able to kill them one by one. Returning to Rome, he was met by his sister, who expressed grief, since she had been engaged to be married to one of the Curiatii triplets. Horatius killed her as well. The people of Rome wanted to execute Horatius for the murder of his sister, but his father addressed the crowd, speaking of his son's recent victory of their behalf, and of his own grief in having recently lost three of his four children. Horatius was allowed to live.

The original Horatii, taking their oath.
The story of the Duel of the Horatii and Curiatii had long be told as an example of how stupid governments could be, in this case by settling the future of their countries on single -- er, triple -- combat. In the case of the reenactment by the Mignons and the followers of the Duke of Guise, the episode was regarded as even stupider. If you're wondering about the outcome, two were killed outright, one died of his wounds the next day, and one died after 33 days of agony. Of the two survivors, one convalesced for six weeks, and the other escaped with merely a scratch. It is safe to say that none of the deaths were mourned by the public.

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