The Sultana, a Civil War era sidewheel steamboat, exploded and burned on the Mississippi River on April 27, 1865. Acknowledged by Congressional Resolution as the greatest maritime disaster in United States history, nearly 1,200 of the more than 2,100 passengers and crew were killed in the explosion and fire which sank the Sultana near Marion, Arkansas, across the river from Memphis, Tennessee. Designed to carry only 376 passengers plus crew, investigations revealed a litany of corrupt practices, including kickbacks, and bribes paid to high-ranking Union officers caused the overcrowding of the boat. The disaster has been overlooked in history since it was overshadowed by the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln and the search for his murderer. Events at the end of the Civil War conspired to wipe the memory of this tragic event from our national history for over 130 years. In its magnitude, the story of the Sultana is as great as that of the more famous Titanic, and yet much more intriguing.
The purpose of the Sultana Disaster Museum is to tell the story of the disaster that occurred on April 27, 1865, and the events that led up to it. It is our commitment to tell the whole story of the steamboat from its construction to its destruction. We also present the stories of the men who were freed from Andersonville and Cahaba prisoner of war camps and how, and why, they were grossly overcrowded onto one boat. We present not only the stories of the victims who were on board the Sultana but also the stories of the rescuers and eye-witnesses, and even the stories of the many Union officers involved in the selection and overcrowding of the boat. The event and the aftermath were a tragedy in many ways, not just the explosion of a steamboat.
The Sultana Disaster Museum tells the story of the tragic events of April 27, 1865 through the use of historic artifacts from the Sultana itself and from many of the survivors. A 14-foot replica of the steamboat as it appeared before the explosion assists in understanding the magnitude of the event. Dozens of photographs of the soldiers, passengers, crew, rescuers, and Union officers involved in the overcrowding bring the people and their stories to life: among them, learn how the unloading of a cargo of sugar carried by the Sultana contributed to the explosion, and how at least one man was saved by an alligator.
The present Sultana Disaster Museum, created in 2015, and providing less than 1000 square feet, will soon be replaced by a permanent modern museum of over 14,000 square feet. The historic Marion gymnasium, shown above, has been identified as the possible site of the new Sultana Disaster Museum. The still-in-use gymnasium was built in 1938 by the WPA. Discussions are presently ongoing in hopes of the site being acquired by the city, and thereafter leased to the Sultana Historical Preservation Society for its future use. By preserving the historic structure and transforming it into a modern museum and archive, the Society will be able to more fully educating and entertaining the public by telling one of the most compelling stories of the American Civil War. Join us in the effort to preserve this historic building and the story of the Steamboat Sultana, the "greatest maritime disaster in United States' history."
This section chronicles the stories of the Union prisoners, passengers, crew, and rescuers connected with the Sultana disaster. The accounts are mostly first-person accounts presented in their own words, taken from government investigations, newspapers, personal narratives, and the trial of Capt. Frederic Speed, the only man ever held accountable for the greatest maritime disaster in American history. A few of these are third-person accounts garnered from obituaries, local newspapers, and family histories.
In 2020, the Sultana Disaster Museum will expand its outreach as a means to educate the public to the story or the Sultana and its rightful place in United States history. Check out the exciting additions to our Board of Directors, learn more about the five-volume set of original issues of Harpers Weekly magazine chronicling the entire Civil War and American political and cultural history from 1861-1865, find information regarding the annual Sultana Descendants and Friends Conference in Springfield, Illinois, April 24-25.
Become a full member of the Sultana Disaster Museum. You may join at any level from deck crew member to Captain/Master. As a dues paying member, your contribution will play a key role in preserving and telling the story of one of the greatest forgotten events in United States history. Your support allows the museum to acquire artifacts, maintain an archive of historical documents, support research, and sustain American history.
Learn how to connect with the Sultana Disaster Museum; physical location, phone and email address. Learn more about the Marion, Arkansas community, and the sights, food and entertainment opportunities of this Memphis area community.