The Sultana Monument commemorates the explosion of the paddle wheeler steamboat the Sultana, on April 27, 1865, and the East Tennessee Union soldiers who died there. The ship was carrying about six times its legal passenger limit. The federal government had packed the ship with Union soldiers, most of them recently released from a prison camp in Cahaba, Alabama and eager to return home to their families.
It was night when the sleeping passengers were awakened by a large explosion in the ship's boilers. Many were plunged into the cold waters of the Mississippi River. Others were burned or burning. As the remaining ship went up in flames, passengers quickly jumped in the wide, flood-swollen river near Memphis. Some managed to swim to shore while some clung for hours to tree tops or pieces of the broken ship. Nearby sailing vessels and local citizens rushed to attempt rescues. Sadly, many of the passengers were too weakened from injury or from conditions suffered in prison to survive. Others drowned or died from hypothermia. Bodies were found downriver for months; some were never recovered.
The Sultana explosion remains the largest maritime disaster in U.S. history. News of the disaster was lost amid the news surrounding the end of the war and President Lincoln’s assassination.
Sultana Survivor reunions were held in Knoxville until the death of the last remaining veteran. Descendants of these veterans still meet annually.