Forgotten tragedy

What was the deadliest maritime disaster in U.S. history?

It happened 144 years ago this month. On April 27, 1865, the steamboat Sultana sank on the Mississippi River just north of Memphis after its boiler exploded. The boat was crammed with 2,400 people, mostly Union soldiers returning from the Civil War. An estimated 1,700 died.

Amazingly, this enormous tragedy soon faded into relative obscurity. News coverage was different then, and a lot of other things were going on — Lincoln had been assassinated only days earlier, and the Civil War had just ended. Today the Sultana is largely forgotten.

Writer Alan Huffman brings the story to life with a terrific new book, "Sultana" (click here for more information from the publisher, HarperCollins.). Drawing on diaries and other documents and research, he follows the stories of a group of survivors and provides a gripping, harrowing description of what they endured.

Only a small part of "Sultana" deals with the boat’s sinking. The book’s central theme is its story of survival — how people achieved it, and what it did to them. Most of the soldiers had endured hellish combat and had only recently been paroled from Confederate prison camps. For them, the Sultana’s explosion and sinking was only the last in a series of unspeakable ordeals.

Huffman is a skilled reporter and gifted storyteller whose talents I first admired years ago, when we worked a few feet apart in a newspaper newsroom. In "Sultana" he’s produced a gem of a book.

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