SINKING THE SULTANA

A Civil War Story of Imprisonment, Greed, and a Doomed Journey Home

Sally M. Walter

The worst maritime disaster in American history wasn’t the Titanic. It was the steamboat Sultana on the Mississippi River — and it could have been prevented.

In 1865, the Civil War was winding down and the country was reeling from Lincoln’s assassination. Thousands of Union soldiers, released from Confederate prisoner-of-war camps, were to be transported home on the steamboat Sultana. With a profit to be made, the captain rushed repairs to the boat so the soldiers wouldn’t find transportation elsewhere. More than 2,000 passengers boarded in Vicksburg, Mississippi .

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The worst maritime disaster in American history wasn’t the Titanic. It was the steamboat Sultana on the Mississippi River — and it could have been prevented.

In 1865, the Civil War was winding down and the country was reeling from Lincoln’s assassination. Thousands of Union soldiers, released from Confederate prisoner-of-war camps, were to be transported home on the steamboat Sultana. With a profit to be made, the captain rushed repairs to the boat so the soldiers wouldn’t find transportation elsewhere. More than 2,000 passengers boarded in Vicksburg, Mississippi . . . on a boat with a capacity of 376. The journey was violently interrupted when the boat’s boilers exploded, plunging the Sultana into mayhem; passengers were bombarded with red-hot iron fragments, burned by scalding steam, and flung overboard into the churning Mississippi. Although rescue efforts were launched, the survival rate was dismal — more than 1,500 lives were lost.

In a compelling, exhaustively researched account, renowned author Sally M. Walker joins the ranks of historians who have been asking the same question for 150 years: who (or what) was responsible for the Sultana’s disastrous fate?

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  • Candlewick Press
  • Hardcover
  • October 2017
  • 208 Pages
  • 0763677558

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$24.99

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About Sally M. Walter

Sally M. Walker is the author of the Sibert Medal winner Secrets of a Civil War Submarine as well as many other nonfiction books, including Boundaries: How the Mason-Dixon Line Settled a Family Feud and Divided a Nation. Sally M. Walker lives in Illinois.

Praise

“Readers who have already devoured the abundance of material on the Titanic will be drawn to the story of the Sultana, which despite being the ‘worst maritime disaster in American history’ is often overshadowed. A riveting and informative addition to nonfiction collections.”School LIbrary Journal

“Walker sets the scene for the Sultana disaster as she describes the captain’s greed (allowing 2,400 passengers when the legal capacity was 376), the chief engineer’s decision to repair rather than replace a deteriorating boiler, the flooded river, and other factors that would come into play….History buffs, and even adults, will be the biggest fans of this crossover YA title.”Booklist

“In addition to archival illustrative material, Walker makes extensive use of primary sources…a finely detailed, well-researched chronicle of a little-known disaster.”Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions

1. Whose story did you find most compelling?

2. If you’d heard of the Sultana before reading this book, where did you learn about it and how much did you know? If not, why do you think this chapter of history is so little known?

3. How did privilege play a role in the Sultana disaster?

4. Do you think the blame for the disaster lies with any one person more than others?

5. What do you think was going through the minds of the men throwing whatever they could find overboard as they tried to help as many people as they could?

6. How do you think the captains of the empty steamboats like the Lady Gay and the Pauline Carroll felt when they heard the news of the Sultana explosion?

7. What do you think of the investigation into the Sultana disaster? Were you surprised by the outcome?

8. Think about what the Sultana voyage meant for its different passengers. How would a voyage home be different for the Union soldiers released from prisoner-of-war camps than for the average steamboat passengers who boarded in Vicksburg? Would they react to the disaster in the same way, either while it was happening or in the aftermath if they were lucky enough to survive?

9. The author discusses how the nation’s reaction to news of the Sultana’s disaster was tempered by timing, writing that “in a terrible way, the nation had become numbed by death. . . . When the Sultana sank, the nation was still reeling from Abraham Lincoln’s assassination” (page 161). Why do you think there’s a difference in the way we process multiple tragedies at once versus isolated events?

10. Why is it so interesting to read and learn about disasters that have occurred, even though we know how terrible they were?

11. In the book’s conclusion, Sally M. Walker draws several parallels between the fate of the Sultana and current events we read about in the news: “a war-torn nation, an overcrowded ferry, individuals who place profit above safety, and people who kindly aid suffering victims of disaster” (page 162). What specifically is Walker referring to here? What can we learn from the Sultana disaster that could prevent similar tragedies from happening? What small ways can you personally make a difference?