Captain James Cass Mason
Unscrupulous Master of the Sultana
Born in Lynchburg, VA around 1831, James Cass Mason was brought to Missouri as a child and grew up beside the river. As a young adult he began work as a clerk on steamboats on the Missouri River and eventually became master and/or owner of a few boats. On November 27, 1860, he married Rowena Mary Dozier, the daughter of a well-known steamboat magnate, and eventually took over as master of the steamboat Rowena, owned by his father-in-law and named after his wife. In Februaty1863, during the middle of the Civil War, Mason and the Rowena were stopped for a routine inspection by the crew of a Union gunboat. Eventually, it was discovered that Captain Mason was carrying 2,000 pairs of pants for the Confederacy and the Rowena was seized as contraband of war. Initially imprisoned, Mason was eventually released but his steamboat was not.
On April 18, with the Rowena now in government service, the boat hit a snag and sank about 30 miles below Cairo, IL. Although interaction between James Cass Mason and his father-in-law came to an abrupt end, the young captain landed on his feet and soon became master of the Belle Memphis. Always a daredevil, on May 9, 1863, Mason entered his new steamboat into a three-way race against the steamboats City of Alton and Sultana. Although Mason and his Belle Memphis won the race, Mason was impressed enough by what he saw in the Sultana that when she came on the market in March 1864, James Cass Mason was one of the purchases, buying a one-quarter share in the boat. With the Union capture of the Confederate stronghold of Vicksburg, MS and Port Hudson, LA, the Mississippi suddenly ran “unvexed to the sea” and hundreds of steamboats began making the lucrative run from St. Louis to New Orleans. Over time however, there was more competition than commerce and James Cass Mason, now the captain of the Sultana began hurting for money. After a couple of mishaps with the Sultana, which needed costly repairs, Mason was forced to sell off most of his controlling shares until he had only a one-sixteenth interest in the steamboat. On the morning of April 15, 1865, Mason and the Sultana were at Cairo, IL when the telegraph reported that President Abraham Lincoln had been murdered in Washington, DC. Grabbing an armload of Cairo newspapers, Mason carried the first news of the assassination down the Mississippi River, thus becoming the unofficial “messenger of death.”
While stopped at Vicksburg, MS, Captain Mason was approached by Capt. Reuben Benton Hatch, the chief quartermaster at Vicksburg. Thousands of recently released Union prisoners of war, fresh from the prison pens at Andersonville, GA and Cahaba, AL, had been collected outside of the city and were about to be released and sent home to the North. Hatch knew that Mason was hurting for money and offered him a deal. The US Government was paying a stipend to steamboat captains willing to carry loads of prisoners upriver. If Mason would agree to give a kickback of the stipend to Hatch, the quartermaster would agree that when Mason came back upriver, there would be at least 1,000 paroled prisoners waiting for him. Naturally, Mason took the bait.
On April 24, the Sultana returned to Vicksburg. Although one boiler had sprung a leak, which required immediate repair, Mason sought out Captain Hatch about his promised load of paroled prisoners. Through misunderstanding, unscrupulous activity, sheer ignorance, and wanton incompetence, close to 2,000 prisoners were crowded onto a boat legally registered to carry only 376 passengers. In the end, even Captain Mason, who would benefit from every single person placed on his boat, protested when the load became too great.
For two days the Sultana steamed upriver. All the time Captain Mason and his crew warned the prisoners to stay in one place and not move around, fearful that the Sultana would capsize or burst her boilers. After unloading over 135 tons of sugar from the hold, the top-heavy steamboat started upriver. At 2:00 in the morning of April 27, 1865, the boilers on the Sultana suddenly exploded, tearing a massive hole through the center of the upper decks. Within minutes, the boat caught fire and over the next five hours burnt to the water’s edge before sinking a few miles above Memphis.
Captain Mason was uninjured by the explosion and immediately began tearing off pieces of the wreck and throwing them into the water for people to float upon. He was seen helping people on all three decks and was last seen at the stern of the lowest deck, still tossing pieces of wood into the water. He was never seen to leave the wreck and his body was never recovered. James Cass Mason was just 34-years old.