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Book Review: The Explosion of the SS Sultana

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If you were asked to list two or three major maritime disasters, where many lost their life, I guess you would mention the sinking of the RMS Titanic in 1912, the RMS Lusitania in 1915 or even the RMS Empress of Ireland in 1914. I suspect you wouldn’t mention the loss of the SS Sultana on 27th April 1865 – even though it remains the deadliest maritime disaster in American history.

Whilst a total of 1,517 died when the Titanic sank, 1,198 on the Lusitania and 1,012 on the Empress of Ireland it is estimated that over 1,800 people died when the Sultana exploded and sank in the Mississippi River. The death toll was an estimate due to the chaotic circumstances at the time. General Robert E Lee had surrendered to General Ulysses Grant on 9th April 1865 and though the American civil war wasn’t over, it was drawing to an end. These were tumultuous times as thousands of Union soldiers were being repatriated from Confederate prison camps to the north. There was both euphoria and resentment in the air. Less than a week later, on 15th April, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. The news and aftermath was all consuming. Whilst the death of almost two thousand people wasn’t ignored it was overshadowed by the carnage of the American Civil War where an estimated 750,000 perished.

The Explosion of the SS Sultana is not a record of any formal investigation or official report. It is essentially an account from a collection of eye witnesses and previously published sources of the events surrounding the loss of the steam ship and those on board. What is clear is that all the ingredients for a disaster were present. What is equally clear is that whilst most of the eye witness accounts are consistent the booklet contains numerous assertions and statements for which no evidence is given nor corroboration provided. In particular, the suggestion that the explosion was due to sabotage by Confederate forces still battling against the Union Army.

There is no doubt that Union soldiers, who had endured terrible conditions in Confederate prison camps, were only too keen to travel north and towards home – regardless of the condition of the ship and facilities provided. It is claimed that a Union Quartermaster, previously judged “totally unfit” to continue his duties and suspected of graft and corruption, was charged with the task of negotiating the price of passage for returning soldiers. It is also claimed that greedy ship owners were only too willing to transport as many passengers as possible – even if it overloaded the ship. What is known is that the Sultana was designed to carry only 400 passengers. On 26th April, when it began the journey north towards Memphis, it was estimated there were over 2,400 on board; over five times the number it was designed to carry. Indeed, the cover picture of the booklet illustrates vividly the overcrowding. What’s more the Sultana, excessively loaded, would be battling against the current all the way north – putting immense strain on the ship.

What those on board didn’t know was that two years previously the ship had been hastily refurbished and put back into service with experimental boilers. One of these boilers had failed prior to the ill-fated journey and was hastily repaired. After the disaster these experimental boilers were later removed from other ships.

In the account Charles River Editors assert that other ships were available, alongside the Sultana, at the time of loading but were not used. They also assert those responsible for the overloading of soldiers on board were reprimanded but no evidence is offered. The account, whilst vivid in places, remains an unsatisfactory epitaph to those who died.

Included in The Explosion of the SS Sultana are several black and white photographs of the ship, together with other sketches and illustrations. They do capture the moment of departure and the aftermath.


The Explosion of the SS Sultana (undated)

  • Publisher: Charles River Editors
  • 28pp
  • ISBN  9781500857660

Charles River Editors provide a variety of services to those who wish to publish both print based and digital material. This includes the republication of previously published material. Search on www.amazon.co.uk for more.


Find out more about the reviewer, Professor Fred Lockwood, who is also a published author at www.fredlockwood.co.uk.

Dr Fred Lockwood is Emeritus Professor of Learning and Teaching, Manchester Metropolitan University, UK. He is also a PADI Master Scuba Diver and dived in the waters of Central America and Africa, the Middle East and South East Asia, Australasia and the Pacific Islands. Follow Fred at www.fredlockwood.co.uk.

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The BiG Scuba Podcast Episode 180: Dawn Kernagis

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Dawn Kernagis

Gemma and Ian chat to Dawn Kernagis.  Dawn joined DEEP in 2023 as the Director of Scientific Research.   DEEP is an ocean technology and exploration company with a mission to ‘Make Humans Aquatic.’ DEEP’s undersea habitat and submersible systems, combined with multi-phased diver and human performance training, will create the next evolution of subsea science, research, and exploration capabilities.   Dawn is a NASA-trained NEEMO Aquanaut, Explorer’s Club Fellow and Women Divers Hall of Fame Inductee and who is also tasked to establish DEEP’s first US presence in North Carolina.   Dawn has also been a diver with numerous underwater exploration, research, and conservation projects since 1993, including the mapping and record-setting exploration of some of the deepest underwater caves in the world.

https://www.deep.com/

https://www.linkedin.com/in/dawn-kernagis-995383152/

The BiG Scuba Podcast is brought to you by Narked at 90.   “Beyond Technical”   Narked at 90    If you are thinking of moving across to tech diving or completely new to diving, Narked at 90 can advise and guide on the best equipment and set up for your personal or commercial requirements  https://www.narkedat90.com/.  There is currently a code for you to use for purchases and the code is  BIGSCUBA2024.

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The BiG Scuba Podcast Episode 173: DEEP – Making Humans Aquatic

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Gemma and Ian visited DEEP and were hosted by Phil Short, Research Diving, Training Lead, and were given a tour of the facility at Avonmouth and then over to the Campus at Tidenham.

DEEP is evolving how humans access, explore and inhabit underwater environments. Through flexible, modular and mobile subsea habitats that allow humans to live undersea up to 200m for up to 28 days, work-class submarines, and advanced human performance research, DEEP completely transforms what we are capable of underwater and how we conduct undersea science and research.

www.deep.com

You can listen to Episode 173 of the BiG Scuba Podcast here.

We hope you have enjoyed this episode of The BiG Scuba Podcast.  Please give us ★★★★★, leave a review, and tell your friends about us as each share and like makes a difference.   Contact Gemma and Ian with your messages, ideas and feedback via The BiG Scuba Bat Phone    +44 7810 005924   or use our social media platforms.   To keep up to date with the latest news, follow us:

We are on Instagram                     @thebigscuba

We are on Facebook                      @thebigscuba

We are in LinkedIn                          https://www.linkedin.com/in/ian%F0%9F%A6%88-last-325b101b7/

The BiG Scuba Website                  www.thebigscuba.com

Amazon Store :                                https://www.amazon.co.uk/shop/thebigscuba

Visit   https://www.patreon.com/thebigscubapodcast and subscribe – Super quick and easy to do and it makes a massive difference. Thank you.

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