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The Sultana Tragedy: America's Greatest Maritime Disaster

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On April 27, 1865, the Sultana, a 260-foot, wooden-hulled steamboat, exploded on the Mississippi River near Memphis, Tennessee. More than 1,800 men died.

312 pages, Hardcover

First published February 29, 1992

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5 stars
16 (29%)
4 stars
23 (42%)
3 stars
11 (20%)
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4 (7%)
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Displaying 1 - 12 of 12 reviews
Profile Image for Tom Mathews.
662 reviews
September 14, 2015
My great-great grandparents, Harvey and Ann Annis and their youngest daughter, Belle, were on the Sultana when it exploded. Harvey and Belle were lost. Ann was the only woman to survive the greatest maritime disaster in American history.
Profile Image for Sean Chick.
Author 4 books1,040 followers
November 26, 2020
The research is wonderful and that alone gets this five stars. The account is thorough and fair. Yet, this is not a great read by any means, lacking flow and being dry as the Sahara. That said, it is not an awkward read. There are no random exclamation points or odd phrases. It is just direct and matter of fact. One thing that was powerful were the plentiful photographs of men who died or survived the disaster.
Profile Image for Michael.
308 reviews22 followers
November 24, 2014
I was stoked about this book for a long time before I purchased it. It really sounded like a great book and had high reviews on other sites. It was good. Only good. The print was bigger than the norm and the book was kind of short. The story about the events and things associated with the boat were well covered but the actual event of the boat exploding was fast paced. It told some details. I would have enjoyed a little more time on the events surrounding the actual sinking... not all the politics and business corruption surrounding the river boat industry. It is a good book though. Worth reading.
Profile Image for Krista the Krazy Kataloguer.
3,873 reviews267 followers
October 3, 2011
This was very dryly written, but the facts of the incident were so interesting that I was compelled to read anyway. This tragedy could easily have been avoided, had certain people not been so greedy. To think of all that these poor soldiers survived in the Confederate prisons, only to be subjected to a further nightmare. So many never made it home. So sad.
Profile Image for J.L. Askew.
Author 2 books11 followers
March 22, 2022
The book opens in the spring of 1865, with a steamboat on a routine trip up the Mississippi River at daybreak, when a passenger makes an ominous sighting in the faint light. What first appears as driftwood is soon recognized as the body of a young boy floating in the current. Before long, other corpses came into view until there were dozens, stunning evidence of some catastrophic event on the river.
The discovery was the first knowledge of the greatest maritime disaster in American history costing 1800 lives. The tragedy resulted from a confluence of questionable actions taken by the boat captain and Federal commanders at Vicksburg. These decisions were based on greed, corruption, and incompetence among many of the authorities, not only those responsible for the Sultana, but also the ones arranging for an estimated 2500 Union soldiers to be crowded onto the boat. One Union officer had appealed an earlier charge of corruption all the way to Lincoln, who, based on political considerations, absolved him, saving his career.
The great loss of life, in a preventable accident caused by human error, led to three separate commissions charged with investigating the catastrophe. Despite extensive inquiries, only one officer was ever charged, Captain Frederic Speed, Assistant Adjutant General at Vicksburg, who was court-martialed for negligence, but released. Although many of the principals were faulted for their actions in the case, no one was punished. The boards of inquiry never determined the exact cause for the boiler explosion, citing a partial repair made the day before or low water in the tank as possible reasons. Once the investigations closed, the Sultana tragedy faded from public view, remembered only by the victims and their families, those who had directly suffered from the disaster.
The survivors formed a memorial association, meeting yearly to support each other, seeking mutual healing, and erecting a monument in an East Tennessee cemetery in 1916. The last Union prisoner died in 1931, and soon all survivors were dead and any living connection to the tragedy had passed away. The historical record of the Sultana disaster has been scarce, and the event deserves better coverage. According to the author, “With the exception of the carnage of battle, few single events in the history of America touched the lives of so many as did the tragedy of the Sultana.”
As an attorney, Potter clearly presents the charges, evidence, and arguments made during the three investigatory hearings. The book stands out as a significant study, exhaustively researched and thoroughly comprehensive. First-hand accounts, from diaries and letters, lend an air of immediacy to the narrative, making the victims’ suffering palpable to the reader.
There are newer books on the subject, but none more complete than the “The Sultana Tragedy”. Although published in 1992, the passage of time has not diminished the book’s stature. Perhaps Potter’s telling of the Sultana story is the best we will ever have.
133 reviews
January 23, 2021
Well researched, good, detailed retelling of what happened. Author appears to have covered every angle of a true tragedy.
Profile Image for Cathy.
49 reviews
February 11, 2015
The Sultana Tragedy: America's Greatest Maritime Disaster by Jerry O. Potter is a thoroughly researched book that details the terrible tragedy of the explosion and sinking of the Sultana (a 260 ft wooden-hulled steamer) on April 27, 1865 outside of Memphis on the Mississippi River. Just days before, 2300 Union Soldiers on their way home from POW Camps in the south were boarded onto the Sultana in Vicksburg, although the steamer only had a legal carrying capacity for 376. It seems that this tragic event has long been overlooked as the assassination of President Lincoln and the capture of John Wilkes Booth were headline news, occurring just days before. This book is a thorough look at the events leading up to the explosion (the greed and criminal misconduct) and the investigation / coverup that followed. The book is full of photographs and illustrations and includes the complete list of the ship's passengers. Very interesting read.
357 reviews
August 23, 2020
This was the best of the Sultana books that I read in order to prepare a presentation on the topic to a Civil War Roundtable group in my home town. Potter provides a great deal of background on the soldiers who boarded the doomed boat and on the officials who were responsible for overloading the Sultana. He also points out how these men were neglected and poorly treated even after the tragedy by the Federal government who would not even build a monument to the victims. One is left with the impression that all involved were trying desperately to bury the incident and forget it ever happened. Unfortunately, that is exactly what has happened.
40 reviews
January 28, 2011
An excellent book about a forgotten aspect of war, what to do with repatriated soldiers. The level of incompetence on boths prior to the tragedy is astounding but typical of people in a situation they do no or will not understand. The heroism of the survivors and actions of rescuers is a testament to the will will to live and the overarching desire to help others.
Profile Image for Paul Andrews.
Author 7 books12 followers
May 30, 2016
Takes you through an engrossing, thoroughly researched account of America's most forgotten, yet worst maritime disaster. Lost in the details at the end of the Civil War when Lee had surrendered and Lincoln was shot. No one noticed 2000 lives lost when an overcrowded riverboat exploded on the Mississippi. Kudos to Jerry Potter for not letting this be forgotten. Remember the Sultana!
Displaying 1 - 12 of 12 reviews

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