The Sultana- April 27, 1865

In April of 1865 the steamship 'Sultana' was commissioned by the Union Army to transport Northern soldiers- many of whom were recently released prisoners of war from camps such as Andersonville- back to their homes in Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan. The owners of the ship, one of whom was the ship's Captain, J.C. Mason, were to receive a commission of $5 per enlisted man and $10 per officer.

On April 25, the Sultana steamed out of Vicksburg, Mississippi loaded with as many as 2400 men. The maximum number the ship was legally permitted to carry was around 400. To make matters worse, in the haste to leave, a boiler that had gone defective after the ship left New Orleans was not repaired properly.

A few miles north of Memphis in the early morning hours of April 27, one of the boilers exploded and the Sultana blew sky high. Between 1500 and 1800 men were killed.

The explosion of the Sultana remains the worst maritime disaster in American history.

 

Sultana - Jon Waterman

Up the Mississippi river, from down in New Orleans,
The Sultana started rolling, her boilers filled with steam
The river current was running strong and the waters were high
From the melted snows of winter, in the spring of '65

The war was not long over and the wounds still fresh in mind
And the riverbanks were flooded with Yankees left behind
So the army put out word that there was money to be made
For every Union soldier taken home, five dollars would be paid

Oh Sultana, roll on up the river,
Roll on up the river take them weary prisoners home
Haul them kegs of sugar, and tote them bags of bones
Up the Mississippi river, take those weary prisoners home

Captain J.C. Mason stood upon the bow
He said this ship can haul more cargo than the laws allow
And since there's money to be made for every soldier that we haul
Though other steamships run this river, we're gonna take them all

The Sultana docked in Vicksburg where a boiler sprang a leak
The repairman said to fix it right would take about a week
But Captain Mason said you've got one day to get it done
Cause there's extra money to be made on this river run.

At the docks the gangplank lowered & there clambored up on board
2000 young men gaunt and grey and grizzled from the war
Many walking skeletons, alive by force of will
Survivors of Cahaba and Andersonville

The wheels turned & the water churned
and she moved out from the pier
The soldiers packed on side by side were filled with hope and cheer
Just a few more days on the river and they would be back home
To their families and loved ones they'd been gone from for so long

So on up past Memphis, the Sultana rolled
With six times as many passengers as she was built to hold
Then at 3 a.m. there came a blast that split the night
And a hailstorm of red hot coals filled the sky with light

Fifteen hundred men were drowned or scalded by the steam
And ferried off to a different home
then the ones of which they dreamed
See how greed can turn a man like a gambler turns his tricks
Or even make the mighty Mississippi into the River Styx.
�2005 Jon Waterman

Recording personnel:
Jon Waterman- Vocal and Guitar
Kirsten Manville- Backing Vocal
Barry Fleischer- Baritone Sax
Chris Paglia- Bass
Henry Churbuck- Drums


 

Back to Top

Back to Disaster Song Project

Back to Jon Waterman Homepage