Sultana Disaster Museum

The Sultana Disaster Museum is  located in downtown Marion, Arkansas, Exit 10 off Interstate-55, just north of the Interstate 40-Interstate 55 interchange.  Marion is a short 12 minute drive from downtown Memphis, TN.



A free museum

This civil war photograph shows the heavily overcrowded Sultana at Helena, Arkansas.  It was taken by Helena photographer Thomas W. Bankes near 7:00 a.m. on April 26, 1865, just 19 hours before the Sultana exploded.  This is one of only two known photographs of the ill-fated steamboat.

The Forgotten Tragedy

The Sultana was a Mississippi River sidewheel steamboat whose destruction by an explosion and fire on April 27, 1865 is the greatest maritime disaster in United States history. Nearly 1,200 of the Sultana’s 2,137 passengers and crew were killed when three of the boat’s boilers exploded. Minutes later, the boat was engulfed in fire. The Sultana sank just north of Marion, Arkansas.

Most of the passengers were paroled Union prisoners of war just released from Confederate prisons at Andersonville, Georgia and Cahaba, Alabama.  The U.S. government had contracted with the captain of the Sultana, James Cass Mason, to transport these former prisoners to Cairo, Illinois to be forwarded by railroad to Camp Chase near Columbus, Ohio.  Most of these men, mainly from the states of Ohio, Tennessee, Indiana, Michigan, Kentucky, and West Virginia, had been weakened from their incarceration and exposure to illnesses. With a legal carrying capacity of only 376 passengers, the Sultana dangerously overcrowded when she took on almost 2,000 paroled prisoners.

From the Museum

The Sultana Disaster Museum focuses on the steamboat itself, its construction, history and passengers-who they were, where they came from, their riveting experiences in the war, captivity, the disaster itself, and their aftermath. Additionally, the museum touches on the stories of the rescuers who risked their lives to save the drowning victims, and on the Union officers at Vicksburg, MS who were connected to the overcrowding of the Sultana. In less than five years, the temporary museum has now enjoyed visitors from all 50 states and eight foreign nations.