One hundred and forty-nine years ago, on April 27, 1865, the Sultana, a Civil War riverboat, exploded outside Memphis, TN. The death toll of the accident surpassed that of the Titanic, making the incident the greatest maritime disaster. However, due to the fact that President Lincoln had been shot a week before, and Lee had surrendered earlier in the month, the event received very little news coverage and became quite lost in American history. The cause of explosion is still in question, some historians claim it was a faulty boiler, some claim the Sultana was the victim of a coal torpedo.
The Sultana was licensed to carry less than 400 passengers, and reports claim she left New Orleans with a bulge in one of her boilers. The ship already had a large number of passengers, but while docked in Vicksburg where engineers put a patch on the bulge, over 2,000 (POW’s) Union Soldiers marched aboard. These men had been released from the nearby Confederate prison camps of Andersonville and Cahawba. The army had paid for prisoners passages north. A short time later, near Helena, AK the ship almost toppled when too many men crowded the side to have their picture taken. (Research states it was the above picture.)
The dreadful explosion that killed over 1,800 of the 2,400 passengers happened a short time later, in the wee hours of the morning, seven miles north of Memphis.
Memphis citizens searched the muddy waters for days finding survivors and then spent many more days attempting to identify recovered dead bodies. A rather swift army investigation claimed no fault in the over-crowded conditions. The survival stories were as amazing as the historic accident. Report accounts claim one man survived by stabbing the ship’s mascot, a 10-foot alligator, and floated atop the alligator’s cage for miles. Another man used a coffin as a row boat. Others found refuge in nearby trees or held on to one of the numerous livestock the ship had also been carrying.
A large number drowned, simply too weak and feeble from months of imprisonment. Others died from the explosion and/or were scalded to death from the steam. Bodies were found for months, and many others were never recovered.
The History Channel has aired a documentary on the Sultana, and there are societies and websites dedicated to her survivors. To this day, the cause of the explosion has never been verified or confirmed. Some claim it was a faulty boiler, some claim it was sabotage. Coal torpedoes were common wartime weapons. These were bombs made out of hollow iron casts that looked just like every other clump of coal used to heat the boilers, but, in fact, were pack full of gun powder. These torpedoes were also made out of wood for the wood burning ships, and used by both the North and the South to dismantle and sink riverboats during the war.
A death bed confession of a Confederate spy and saboteur was never taken seriously, although he knew things only the saboteur would know. Some historians suggest that is because the army had already investigated the accident and didn’t want to draw attention to all they’d wiped under the rug in order to claim they held no fault in the accident by overcrowding the ship. Furthermore, the confessing man had been arrested after the accident, but let go because the war was over and the ceasefire included no charges being brought against agents on either side.
I learned of the Sultana several years ago while vacationing in Memphis. A riverboat tour guide gave a chilling account of the accident, which sent me home to do months of research before creating the story, An April toRemember. Turning this tragic incident into a romance novel was a challenge, but I also found great pleasure in creating a happy-ever-after for two specific passengers.
Blurb: April Simonson hated men—all men. They were cruel, sinful beasts. Her disfigured face was proof. That is until she met Jerek Brinkley. Then, as the revered Sultana explodes, April falls into the dark, muddy waters of the Mississippi River terrified she’ll never see the light of day or the handsome riverboat gambler again.
Jerek Brinkley fought hell and high water to save the northern vixen who’d won his heart with her card tricks, only to fear Allan Pinkerton’s arrival in Memphis might reveal secrets he’s not ready for her to know.
Based on history’s greatest maritime disaster, An April to Remember, sprinkled with real facts and events, revives the Sultana, a Civil War riverboat whose death toll surpassed the Titanic’s, and offers a new twist on what might have happened that fateful night in 1865.
Reviews for An April to Remember have included:
WRDF Reviews— TOP READ: “A wonderful story by Ms Robinson, a must read for someone who loves a bit of everything, heartache, catastrophe, romance, and passion. I loved it immensely.”
Long and Short of it Reviews: “This story will touch your heart and make you weep with gratification that we have authors such as Robinson. This was a wonderful read and I wish it could go on forever. It’s a keeper for any bookshelf!”
Night Owl Reviews—TOP PICK: “Lauri Robinson did a beautiful job with this book for when you read her words you could almost hear the cries, death all around, and happiness of knowing a loved one survived. Truly this is one of those books that needs to be savored.”