The Steamship Sultana Accident and the 42nd Indiana

The Steamship Sultana Accident 
and the 42nd Indiana

This photograph of the Sultana, which shows her decks overcrowded with passengers, was taken on April 26,
1865, at Helena Arkansas.  This was less than 24 hours before she would explode and sink on the dark and
flooded Mississippi River (Original picture from Library of Congress). 1

On April 27, 1865, the steamship Sultana, while overloaded with mostly Union soldiers, exploded and sank in the dark of the night on the flooded Mississippi River near Memphis, Tennessee. More than 1,800 soldiers lost their lives in this horrific accident.  Some of the soldiers aboard the Sultana were paroled prisoners who had survived the prisons of Andersonville and Cahaba only to perish in the fiery explosion and the cold and muddy waters of the Mississippi River.  More lives were lost on the Sultana than were lost on the Titanic and the Sultana tragedy still stands as America’s worst maritime disaster.  At the time of the explosion, the Sultana was carrying 2,500 passengers, though it was built to only hold 400.

Three members of the 42nd Indiana were onboard the Sultana during its last fateful voyage:  Private William A McFarland, Corporal Remig Moushart, and Corporal Joseph Smith.  All were members of Co. A and all three were captured by the Confederates at the Battle of Chickamauga, GA and taken prisoner. 2

Private William McFarland was the only surviving 42nd Indiana member of the Sultana tragedy.  He later recalled this account of the Sultana explosion.3

I ENLISTED during the first call for volunteers in 1861, in Company A, 42nd Indiana Infantry, at the age of 16 years. My first duty was to act in the capacity of "marker" boy, but had not been out three months when I was carrying a gun with the other soldiers. I saw constant service until the 20th day of September 1863, when I was captured by Longstreet's command, at the battle of Chickamauga, in the second day's fight of that battle. We were skirmishing and were cut off from our command some time before we knew it. Our captors took us to Libby prison, where we were kept for four months. Our rations at first consisted of about half of an ordinary loaf of bread and a small piece of beef, each, for a day's ration, but the meat soon disappeared and we were left with nothing but the bread. I was taken with about 12,000 other prisoners from Libby to the Danville, Va., prison, where we were kept about three months and then taken to the famous Andersonville prison, where we remained for eleven months more, to suffer indescribable horrors. The cover we had overhead was the blue canopy of heaven, while we were surrounded on the four sides by a high wall and a strong armed guard. When sleeping we were obliged to huddle together to keep warm in the winter. Our food was of the very poorest kind, consisting principally of corn meal. We were allowed to cook any articles we might buy, but were made to buy the wood to do the cooking with. One Irish potato would bring from 75 cents to $1.25— a tablespoonful of coarse salt 20 to 40 cents and a handful of wood 25 cents, and in good United States money, too. Some of the prisoners had money and often bought such articles, but if they got much at a time they would be raided by their comrades.

After the war had come to a close the federal prisoners were taken from Andersonville and other prisons by the rebels, under a flag of truce, to Big Black river, twelve miles in the rear of Vicksburg, and turned over to the federal forces, after which we marched into Vicksburg. The government had chartered the steamer "Sultana" to convey 400 prisoners north. The "Sultana" was a packet plying between New Orleans and St. Louis, and was chartered on (or about) April 23, 1865.

The boat was loaded with 2,300 Union prisoners who were to be taken north to "Camp Chase," Ohio. Before the boat had cleared the landing at Memphis a number of the boys made their escape and went up town and got whiskey. They were in no fit state to drink it—being in such a wretched condition from the treatment in the prisons—and a guard was sent out to bring them back. The last to put in an appearance was a soldier hailing from Tennessee. He was a thin seven-footer, and he came down to the boat, shouting and cursing, at the point of bayonets, so drunk he could hardly walk. He was brought up to the hurricane deck, where he caused considerable disturbance.

I was quite young at that time, and it pleased me very much to tease this fellow. He tried to get at me, but the men were so thick he had to run over a number in trying to get to me, and received a number of hard licks for his trouble. When the " Sultana " was chartered there were several families on board who were on their way from Louisiana to the north and they were permitted to retain their state rooms.

After we left Memphis it began raining and continued to do so all that night. When eight miles above Memphis, between two and three o'clock in the morning, the boilers of the boat exploded. I seemed to be dreaming and could hear some one saying," there isn't any skin left on their bodies." I awoke with a start and the next moment the boat was on fire and all was as light as day. The wildest confusion followed. Some sprang into the river at once, others were killed, and I could hear the groans of the dying above the roar of the flames. As before stated, I was on the hurricane deck, clear aft. This part of the boat was jammed with men. I saw the pilot house and hundreds of them sink through the roof into the flames, at which juncture I sprang overboard into the river. As I came to the surface of the water I saw a woman rush out of a state room in her night clothes with a little child in her arms. In a moment she had fastened a life preserver about its waist and then threw it overboard. The preserver had evidently been fastened on too low, for when the little one hit the water it turned wrong end up. The mother rushed into the state room an instant and was then out and sprang into the water and grabbed the child—all of which occurred in the space of a couple of minutes.

The next thing that occupied my attention was seeing the seven-foot Tennesseean, whom I had been teasing on the trip, close at my side. "A guilty conscience needs no accuser," and I supposed he would drown me if he caught me. I began swimming away from him. I swam seven miles down the river and into a drift, where I caught onto a log and awaited assistance. As day dawned I found that hundreds had followed my example, and although it was a serious situation I could not help laughing at the comical appearance that all made. Imagine my surprise when I observed that woman, whom I had witnessed plunge into the river after her baby, sitting a-straddle of a log about twenty feet in front of me with the little one before her. We were both picked up by a yawl sent out by the steamer "Silver Spray." The next person the yawl approached was my long Tennessee friend, who was comfortably seated on a log. He asked how far it was to Memphis, and when told only a mile, he said to the crew, "Go to hell with your boat; if you couldn't come to help me before now you had better have stayed away," and with that he slid from his log and began swimming down the river.

When the survivors arrived at Memphis that morning all the hacks and omnibusses in the city were at the wharf to convey us to the Overton Hospital—now the Overton Hotel. There were enough conveyances for all and none were compelled to walk. The sevenfoot Tennesseean had arrived at the landing by the time the "Silver Spray" did, but it was found that he was still under the influence of liquor, after all the excitement of the night, and when he began to get into the conveyance he refused to ride. They tried to force him into a hack, but in the scuffle two or three soldiers were knocked down. A guard was detailed to march him through the streets to the hospital. On the way up we passed through a street inhabited mostly by Jews, who kept second-hand clothing establishments, etc., and as the hack in which I was riding was slowly passing along the street I could see that long Tennesseean pulling off boots, shoes, hats, caps and other articles from the signs hanging in front, and by the time he reached the hospital he had about a dozen Jews at his heels clamoring for their wares. "Dot ish my goat," said one, and "dose vas my shoes," said another, while a third would yell, "gif me pack my bants." The Tennesseean turned, and, glaring at the crowd, threw the lot at his feet, saying, "There, help yourselves," and as they rushed forward and stooped over the pile he began to knock them right and left.

It was afterwards learned that out of 2,300 prisoners on the "Sultana" 1,500 were either blown to pieces or drowned. The boat was totally destroyed. At the place where the wreck occurred the river was miles wide, making escape almost impossible.

After being at the hospital a few days, and not being injured, I made my escape, determining to reach home as soon as possible. The first boat that came along was the "St. Patrick," a handsome steamer plying between Cincinnati and Memphis. Like a burnt child dreading the fire, I dreaded getting on a steamboat for fear of another explosion. Adopting what I supposed was the safest plan, I crawled into the yawl hanging over the stern of the boat (as all sidewheel packets have) and never left my quarters until I arrived at the wharf at Evansville. It rained most all the way up, but I stuck it through. Every time the boat would escape steam or blow the whistle I prepared to jump, supposing an explosion was about to take place.

Sultana Painting by Marion Bradford Thompson, Jonesboro, Arkansas


Private McFarland died on October 15, 1911 and was laid to rest in Oak Hill Cemetery, Evansville, IN.

Obituary of  Private William A. McFarland
Source: Evansville Journal, October 18, 1911
Thanks to Cora "Toodie" Nuffer who submitted this obit


The funeral of William A. McFarland, who died early Sunday morning, was held from the residence, 900 Bedford avenue, Tuesday. Mr. McFarland was a member of Company A, 43nd (typo, it should read 42nd) regiment of Indiana and nearly all the members of the company that are living, were present at the funeral services. He was the youngest member in the company and to him, went the company flag at the close of the war, which he preserved up till the time of his death. He treasured that flag as a memory of the days when he was struggling for it and kept it, although it was much battered and torn. During the civil war, Mr. McFarland fought in forty-eight battles and was confined for eighteen months in the Andersonville prison in Virginia (Georgia). He was also the last soldier from Evansville to be on the Sultana, which was blown up. The Sultana, at the time of the blowing up, was carrying 2,000 union soldier up the Mississippi river and McFarland had to swim nine miles to escape. At present there are only eighteen members of the company still living and part of those served as pall bearers for the deceased, including Messrs. Elder Cooper, George Goodge, William Shaw, "Billy" Elliot, George McGrew and Thomas Reed, all companions to McFarland during the war. Rev. H. A. Hymes delivered the sermon, following which the body was buried at Oak Hill cemetery.

Remig Moushart, according to his military records from the National Archives,  was mustered into the 42nd Indiana, Co. A., as a private, on October 9, 1861.  He was born in Germany and was 30 years old at the time of muster.  His occupation was listed as a laborer.  He was promoted 8th Corporal on March 23, 1862.  On September 20, 1863 he was captured at the Battle of Chickamauga and was held as a prisoner of war at Richmond, VA on September 29, 1863.  He was then sent to Danville, VA on December 12, 1863 and then was admitted to the hospital at Andersonville, GA on September 14, 1864, with Scorbutus.  On March 18, 1865, a little more than a month before Corp. Moushart would be killed in the Sultana accident, he was released from prison by means of a prisoner exchange. Corp. Moushart’s military records states the he was “Discharged by reason of death reported to have been drowned on Mississippi River on or about the 17th of April, 1865, was on board the steamer Sultana and has not been heard from since the disaster.”

Joseph Smith, according to his National Archives military records, was mustered into the 42nd Indiana as a private on October 9, 1861.  He was born in Germany and was 24 years old at the time of muster.  His occupation was listed as a blacksmith.  He was promoted to Corporal on Janurary 1, 1863.  On September 20, 1863 he was captured at the Battle of Chickamauga, GA and was held as a prisoner of war at Richmond, VA and later admitted to Hospital at Andersonville, GA with Scorbutus.  His records also indicate that he later reported for Vicksburg, MS on April 20(?hard to read date).  His military records contain an avadavat singed by the Captain of Co. A, 42nd Indiana, Andrew McCutchan, which states that Corp. Joseph Smith was discharged by reason of "death, reported to have been drowned in the Miss. River on or about the 17th of Apr., 1865, he was on board of the steamer Sultana and has not been heard from since the disaster."  His records also contain a "Casualty Sheet" which states that Corp. J. Smith "Perished by the Explosion of the Steamer Sultana."  In the Remarks area of this same sheet it states: "The Sultana was lost on the Mississippi River about nine miles above Memphis Tenn at about 2 o'clock a.m., April 27, 1865, by the explosion of her boiler."

U.S. Representative From Arkansas Vic Snyder Speaks on House Floor Regarding the Steamship Sultana Tragedy



1. Potter, Jerry O. The Sultana Tragedy, America's Greatest Maritime Disaster.  Pelican Publishing Company, 1997. p 72.

2. Indiana State Archives, Commission on Public Records, 42nd IVI Correspondence Microfilm (See: Report of Killed, Wounded, and Missing of the 42nd IVI in the Battle of Chickamauga

3. Berry, Chester D. Loss of the Sultana and Reminiscences of Survivors: History of a Disaster. D.D. Thorp Printer, 1892. pp 247-252.


Other Sultana Sources on the Web:

Indiana Men on the Sultana
The Sultana: Death on the Dark River
SS Sultana - Wikipedia
Berry, Chester D. Loss of the Sultana and Reminiscences of Survivors: History of a Disaster (Google Books)



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This Page was Last Edited on March 13, 2011