The worst disaster in American Maritime history occurs today in the Mississippi River, exceeding even that of the Titanic many years later.
During the war the steamship Sultana plied the Mississippi between St. Louis and New Orleans, often carrying military personnel. Now, with the war effectively over (former Confederate president Jefferson Davis yet in hiding and some armies not yet disbanded), the ship, with a stated capacity of 376, is carrying nearly 2,100 passengers, most repatriated Union prisoners recently released from the prison camps at Cahaba (Alabama) and Andersonville (Georgia). The former prisoners boarded on April 24 at Vicksburg, immediately after repairs were made to the steamer’s leaky boilers.
Today the overcrowded Sultana stops in Memphis to make additional repairs, then resumes her upriver travels towards Cairo, Illinois. A mere seven miles north of Memphis, however, the boilers suddenly burst, ripping apart the ship’s midsection. Some passengers are engulfed in flames, some thrown overboard, and still others trapped on the burning ship. As the ship slowly breaks apart, lists and sinks, some survivors jump aboard, bobbing for hours in the frigid water.
This terrible disaster ends with an official count of 1,547 dead, although modern historians place the figure as high as 1,800. Most of the dead are soldiers who, having managed to survive the horrid conditions of Confederate prison camps, were eager to see their families again.
The tragedy, however, receives little attention in newspapers at the time, likely due to national fatigue over enormous death tolls due to the war and the recent assassination of Abraham Lincoln, whose remains are yet en route to his home state of Illinois in a funeral train that stops each day to allow mourners to view his body (today’s stop being Buffalo, New York).
A military commission investigating the sinking of the Sultana later concludes that faulty repairs to the ship’s boilers and overcrowding led to the explosion. Although Captain Frederick Speed receives a court-martial, it is later revoked.
While the Sultana sinks and Lincoln‘s remains are viewed by citizens of Buffalo, a memorial service for the former president is held at New York’s Berean Baptist Church. The New York Times reports of the meeting:
The members of the Berean Baptist church, (Rev. Dr. DOWLING) held a memorial meeting last evening, for the purpose of adopting appropriate resolutions and listening to addresses on the death of President LINCOLN.
The Rev. Dr. DOWLING was appointed chairman, and opened the exercises by reading the 64th psalm, followed by a prayer from the Rev. ISAAC ORCHARD. The chairman said that he would not make an extended speech in relation to the death of our beloved President. He would leave to others the duty of giving expression to the lamentable occurrence, the meeting had been called for the purpose of showing their appreciation of the character of the man who was called upon to fill the honorable position of President; and whose life had been sacrificed by a desperate villain. The speaker recounted the circumstances attending the death of BOOTH, exactly similar in physical circumstances as the wound by which Mr. LINCOLN died. But how different the moral circumstances of their deaths. One goes to an honored grave, lamented by millions, while the name of the other will be handed down to posterity as the synonym of all that is vile and execrable. The death of BOOTH will deter others from attempting to take the life of our present honored President, while if he had escaped unwhipt of justice, the lives of Gen. GRANT, the President and other great men might have also been sacrificed.
The Chairman introduced Gen. HIRAM WALBRIDGE, who made an eloquent and impressive address. He said:
The history of a nation is nothing more or less than the biography of its distinguished sons. Whenever, therefore, a citizen of any community has attained such a position as to concentrate within his own person the affections of his countrymen, whatever affects him for the time being affects the State. And whenever such an individual is transferred to that list which makes up the record of the distinguished dead, just in proportion to the extent of his influence while living will be the respect paid his memory by those who shall come after him. The just appreciation by posterity of those who have rendered eminent services, either in the Cabinet or in the field, is one of the strongest incentives to virtue and moral worth — an obligation which it is the hightest duty of society to protect and cherish. Thus impressed, the American people, since the assassination of their lamented President, with hearts overflowing with sadness, have gathered in their primary assemblages in every section of the Union, to pay appropriate tributes to the memory of the great and good man who, springing from the loins of the people, without adventitious aid, by the force of his eminent virtues, his patriotic services, his strict adherence to principle, and the fidelity with which he pursued his convictions on all questions affecting the interests of the State and influencing the destiny of the people, rose to the highest dignity recognized in the land. The peaceful death by the ordinary course of nature of a citizen occupying such an exalted position and invested with such honors would at any time awaken the sensibilities of the people. It is not strange, then, that the national emotion is stirred from its innermost depths at the brutal and cowardly act of the murderous assassin under circumstances so peculiar as those which surround the recent death of the President of the United States. But mysterious are the ways of Providence. Called without solicitation on his part to discharge the high duties incident to the Presidential office at a period of unexampled bitterness in our political history, just as be comprehended the period had arrived when he might tender forgiveness to the great body of the people who had been induced to engage in the rebellion — reserving for subsequent consideration whatever action the government would feel called upon to take in reference to the leaders of this foul conspiracy — for purposes unknown to us the Great Infinite at such a moment suffered the hand of the assassin to take the life of the Chief Magistrate. But who is there that will say it has thereby taken the life of the nation? For all realize at this moment, even amid this unbroken lamentation, and before the mortal remains of our illustrious President are confined to their final resting place, that this last dispensation of Providence has only the more thoroughly strengthened the fixed determination of the American people to preserve intact their liberties and perpetuate their government to those into whose keeping in the future is to be confided the control of constitutional government. At the moment when the murderous blow was struck he stood within eight of the promised land. He realized, doubtless, that if Providence was to continue his existence, the latter portion of his second Administration was to be marked by the recognition of his authority over all the States as they existed antecedent to the rebellion. May we not reasonably conclude that the measure of his greatness was complete, and that no lengthened years — no subsequent exertion — no additional labors could add to the dignity and the greatness of a life so pregnant with usefulness and renown. LINCOLN shall live with WASHINGTON in immortal renown, while BOOTH and DAVIS shall forever stand in the same record of infamy to provoke the indignation of the virtuous and good. Each were the representatives of their respective civilizations. WASHINGTON and LINCOLN illustrated the genius of free institutions — of a government which recognized individual political equality — which had for its object the recognition of the rights of man — which made labor dignified — which secured for all men equal privileges, and which founded a government which permitted the humblest individual, by the exercise of virtue, sobriety, industry, and integrity to attain the highest dignities of the Republic. DAVIS and BOOTH represent that false civilization which has for its object the institution of a government which divided society in classes — which made the interests of the many subordinate to the interest of the few, and which, while claiming to be a government of freedom, was the most grinding, odious military despotism on earth; a civilization which stimulated this wicked and murderous assassin to fondly imagine that by the death of the great and good President of the United States he might thereby aid the falling fortunes of the so-called Confederacy — if, indeed, he was not stimulated by the ignoble purpose of living forever in history by connection with Mr. LINCOLN’s death, as Judas lives in infamy in conjunction with the Prince of Peace, whom he betrayed. When the grave responsibilities that cluster around the punishment of the bold, wicked, unscrupulous conspirators who have inaugurated this gigantic treason had arrived, another was to be selected to determine the measure of justice which should be meted out to them. One whose whole life has been familiar with the machinations by which the conspirators organized a public sentiment, having for its object the overthrow of the government of the United States. Let us rejoice that that selection has fallen upon one who brings to the discharge of his high office a long and arduous career of unbroken fidelity to the interests of the masses, to the amelioration of whose condition he has devoted the best energies of his existence. Thoroughly familiar with the demoralizing effects of that institution whose continued existence was a wrong to the industrial classes of the whole nation, to him may be well awarded the high prerogative of inaugurating those great reforms essential to the continued prosperity of the people as they emerge from the desolating influence of the terrible internecine war through which we have so recently passed. But we must not forget that even his strong arm is powerful only as it is invigorated with the strength and confidence of the people. Thus sustained, who shall measure the greatness and renown which awaits the administration of the government upon which we are about to enter. Called to exercise power under circumstances so grave and unexpected, enough has already transpired to assure the public confidence that the interests of the people and the honor of the republic will be safe in the hands of the present Executive. Indicating his future policy, as he points to his past illustrious and persistent record, foreign governments may learn that hereafter the policy of this nation is to be that early inaugurated by WASHINGTON, which sought to advance its own great interests without any entangling alliances abroad; and equally assuring them there must be incorporated upon this continent no institutions unfriendly to the continued advancement of the government of the United States; while the masses abroad can equally appreciate that the President of the United States will be glad to welcome here all those who desire to change their material condition and advance their material prosperity by availing themselves of the benefits of that benificent legislation which secures to each man a home — a measure which owes its success to the sagacity and foresight of President JOHNSON more than to that of any other living man. The people of the United States themselves are to be assured that justice, though tempered with mercy, will, nevertheless, be executed upon all who have sought to take the life of the nation, and that treason must be regarded the most odious crime recognized in our social and political system.
Gen. WALBRIDGE was listened to with marked attention, and frequently applauded.
A series of resolutions were adopted, expressing the abhorrence and detestation of the crime in which the deed was held by those present; assenting to the sentiment of President JOHNSON, that treason is the highest crime, and should be punished; recognizing in the new President a man qualified for utterly exterminating the rebellion, and pledging him their support; thanking God for raising up ABRAHAM LINCOLN, and sparing his life until his life-work was done, and the flag was replaced on Fort Sumter, and approving of the project of erecting a monument by one-dollar subscriptions, to our lamented President, in this city.
Eloquent speeches were also made by WILLIAM OLAND BOURNE and Mr. CAULKINS.
The essential sentiments voiced in the Berean Baptist Church are seemingly shared by most other Baptists of the North.
Sources: “Sultana Sinks,” including image, Library of Congress (link); “Sultana Disaster” (link); Jerry Potter, The Sultana Tragedy: America’s Greatest Maritime Disaster, Pelican Publishing, 1992 (link); “Abraham Lincoln in Buffalo: A Solemn Day in the City,” Buffalo History Works (link); “The Death of President Lincoln; Meeting in the Berean Baptist Church,” New York Times, April 28, 1865 (link)