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.