April 27, 2017, as I am writing this, is the 152nd anniversary of a little-known but fascinating story. While it has great significance in American history, I believe we can also gain spiritual insight from it. I would like to recount this story to you now.
We all have heard the story of the Titanic but are you aware there is a lesser known, however worse maritime disaster that happened in the United States. It is the sinking of the Mississippi Riverboat Sultana in 1865. I read several accounts of the disaster and found each had slightly different figures concerning this event, but I will be as accurate as possible.
On April 13, 1865, Captain J. Cass Mason aboard the Sultana left St. Louis bound for New Orleans. On April 15th, the boat had stopped in Cairo, Illinois when the news of President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination broke. Knowing that because of the civil war, much of the telegraph communication had been cut off, it is reported Capt. Mason grabbed an armful of Cairo newspapers and headed south to spread the news.
When the Sultana reached Vicksburg, Mississippi, Capt. Mason was approached by the Chief Quartermaster of Vicksburg, Lt. Col. Ruben Hatch, with a lucrative business deal. Many recently released Union prisoners of war that had been held by the Confederacy were being brought outside of Vicksburg to await transportation to the North. The government was paying steamboat captains per head to transport these soldiers and even more per head for each officer transported. Hatch promised Mason a full boatload of 1.400 men for a kickback and Mason took the bribe.
The Sultana then traveled on to New Orleans and started back to Vicksburg to pick up the prisoners. About an hour south of Vicksburg one of the boilers sprang a leak. A mechanic at Vicksburg wanted to replace it but the greedy Capt. Mason did not want to risk other boats getting his load of passengers, so he instructed him to patch it.
When the prisoners started boarding, the count of men was thought to have been below 1,500, so they were told to all board the Sultana. The approximate numbers aboard turned out to be 1,978 prisoners, 22 guards from the 58th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, 70 paying passengers and 85 crew members. The Sultana was built to hold 376 passengers and cargo.
The overloaded vessel traveled up the river for two days through one of the severest spring floods in the history of the Mississippi River. Near 7 p.m. on April 26th, the boat arrived in Memphis unloaded 120 tons of sugar. About midnight the boat left Memphis and went a short distance to get a load of coal and started north again.
Close to 2 a.m. on April 27th, seven miles north of Memphis, three of the four boilers on the boat exploded. Many died immediately, and others drowned in the waters as they jumped off of the burning ship. Capt. Mason was among those that perished. There are believed to be only about 800 survivors, who were taken to area hospitals some of which died in the days following. Leaving the death toll above that of the Titanic. The news of this tragedy was overlooked because of the end of the Civil War and the assignations of Lincoln and Booth.
So, what can we learn from this, spiritually speaking?