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The Sultana disaster on the Mississippi 150 years ago took its toll on Cincinnati

As Cincinnati slept in the early morning hours of April 27, 1865, the SS Sultana, a steamboat that had been built in the shipyards here two years before, was slowly chugging up the Mississippi River near Memphis.

Cincinnati, like every city and village in the Union, was simultaneously relieved that the bloody Civil War was ending and mourning the death of President Abraham Lincoln, assassinated only 13 days before.

But, in the pitch-black of night and in the murky, muddy waters of the Mississippi, something was happening that would bring tragedy to the doorsteps of dozens of Cincinnati families and hundreds more across Ohio and other northern states.

Families like that of Adam Schneider, a German-born soldier who had immigrated to Cincinnati; and whose wife and three daughters were left to grieve the loss of a husband and father and struggle to get by on the $12 a month veterans’ survivor pension of the time.

The Sultana, bursting at the seams with about 2,400 Union soldiers being shipped home from war – many of them the sick and malnourished former prisoners of the Confederates - exploded into flames when its boiler blew.

By most historical accounts, at least 1,700 and possibly as many as 1,800 soldiers died – either in the initial blast, by drowning in the river, or, later, of the wounds they had suffered in the blast.

It was, without question, the worst maritime disaster in U.S. history, eclipsing even the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, when 1,517 people were lost.

It was a tragedy that should never have happened.

The paddlewheeler was built in 1863 at the John Lithoberry Shipyards on Front Street in Cincinnati, alongside the Ohio River.

On the night it exploded, the Sultana was carrying about six times its capacity of passengers and crew. The load was so great the crew had to build extra supports for the upper deck, in fear that the deck would collapse under the weight of all the men it carried.

It had left New Orleans on April 21 with about 100 cabin passengers and some livestock bound for market in St. Louis. Two days later, the Sultana stopped in Vicksburg to repair a damaged boiler.

That’s when the Army began paying to load soldiers bound for home onto the steamboat - $5 each for enlisted men, $10 each for officers.

At 2 a.m. on the morning of April 27, seven miles north of Memphis, the boiler gave way in a tremendous explosion. The fire on the river could be seen as far away as Memphis.

It took about three days for the news of the Sultana to reach Cincinnati – the destination port for many of the soldiers on board.

Historical records show that at least 50 soldiers from Cincinnati – probably more – died in the Sultana explosion. Ohio had the greatest number of dead – 791 -many of whose bodies were never found. Those whose bodies were recovered were buried in the National Cemetery at Memphis.

One of those Cincinnati soldiers was Adam Schneider, a 42-year-old immigrant from the German village of Ingelheim am Rhein, down the Rhein River from Frankfurt.

He came to Cincinnati in 1854 with his wife Catherine; the couple had three small children, all daughters. They lived in a house on W. Liberty Street, near John Street.

Pam Newhouse of Madison, Ind., is one of Adam Schneider’s great-great granddaughters and she has written extensively about her ancestor and about the Sultana Disaster.

She has written a newsletter for the families; and contributes to a website for descendants of soldiers on the Sultana,

Newhouse said there are several cousins still living in Cincinnati; and that she has visited and spoken with her great-great grandfathers’ relatives in Germany.

“They all know the story,’’ she said.

This year, as they do every year, she and her husband traveled to Memphis for a reunion of descendants of the Sultana explosion that takes places on the anniversary.

She never tires of telling the story of Adam Schneider.

“He was a cabinet maker,’’ Newhouse said. “I’m not sure he spoke any English. But you didn’t have to in Cincinnati back then.”

He had basically fled Germany because of an incident in 1849, Newhouse said.

In his home town, she said, he belonged to a social activist and gymnastics club that did not much like the Prussians. When they heard that that Prince of Prussia was to ride through Ingelheim am Rhein, the club decided they were going to assassinate him.

They drew straws, Newhouse said, “and Adam drew the short straw. So he was to do the deed.” When the prince rode through town, Schneider took a shot at him and missed. He was arrested and spent months on trial, finally being declared not guilty, “even though he clearly was guilty,” Newhouse said.

“Well, things got a little hot for him over there so he decided to immigrate here; and as many Germans did, he ended up in Cincinnati,’’ she said.

In 1864 – the fourth year of the war – Schneider was drafted. He was 42 years old – just three years shy of the maximum age for the draft.

He ended up in the 183rd Ohio Infantry Regiment, which trained its draftees and raw recruits at Camp Dennison in northeast Hamilton County.

After about three weeks of training, Schneider and the 183rd were sent south to Franklin, Tennessee.

On Nov. 30, 1864, the battle of Franklin took place – one of the bloodiest battles of the western theater of the war and a key victory for the Union Army, which kept the Confederates from advancing north and taking Nashville.

The Union commanders on the field at Franklin thought that the Confederate commander, Gen. John Bell Hood, would try a flanking move to attack the Union army which stood between the Confederates and the road to Nashville.

So the Union command put green, inexperienced troops like the 183rd in the center of the line – which is exactly where Hood made his attack.

Schneider was captured and he spent the rest of the war in Cahaba Prison Camp near Selma, Alabama.

Near the end of April, prisoners liberated from Cahaba and other prison camps were moved to Vicksburg, where they boarded ships for the trip back home. Schneider was put on the Sultana.

He was on board with his friend, Michael Conrad, a young soldier who was a butcher by trade back in Cincinnati, when the explosion occurred. Much of what Newhouse knows about her great-great grandfather’s death came from what Conrad, who survived, told the family.

“Apparently, we do know that (Conrad) and Adam were standing on the railing of the boat after the explosion,’’ Newhouse said. “So we know they survived the initial explosion and fire; and they talked about jumping overboard, catching some debris and floating to safety and that they would see each other in Cincinnati. So that we do know. Obviously, Michael made it and Adam did not.”

Schneider drowned in the river and his body was never recovered.

Conrad returned to Cincinnati; and went to the Schneider home on West Liberty Street and told the family what happened.

“He came back and was a broken man, emotionally and physically,’’ Newhouse said. “The saddest thing was that on every April 27, for as long as Michael lived; and I don’t think that was for more than five or six years, he would appear on their doorstep. They would open the door and he would just stand there and cry, cry like a baby.”

The disaster, she said, left a “tremendous void” in Cincinnati.

“You can just imagine,’’ Newhouse said. “So many didn’t come back. And the ones who did come back, like Michael Conrad, didn’t live very long and they just didn’t do anything. They were just absolutely useless. And then they died. So it left a tremendous impact on the city, I’m sure.”

News of the Sultana tragedy spread slowly through the city; and was buried somewhat in the newspapers because of the ongoing funeral procession for Lincoln and news of the fact that his assassin, John Wilkes Booth, had been hunted down and killed in Virginia on April 26.

In early May, the Cincinnati Daily Commercial printed a partial list of the dead, with many from Cincinnati and the surrounding  countryside.

The Daily Commercial also reported that, in the river after the explosion, “several men were found stiff, cold and dead on planks. Their long imprisonment had so weakened them that the shock of this terrible occurrence and their immersion in the cold river proved fatal.”

Newhouse said the fact that, like Adam Schneider, so many victims’ bodies were never found strikes her every year when she goes to the reunion.

“I always look around at those people at the reunions and wonder if my great-great grandfather talked to one of these men and they tried to help him,’’ she said. “The connection is strong.

“I like to say that as long as you talk about something, it will never die,’’ Newhouse said. “So many bodies were lost; the body of my great-great grandfather was never found.

“So our memories are their only grave.”

Howard Wilkinson is in his 50th year of covering politics on the local, state and national levels.