Lincoln and the Sultana Tragedy, Part 2 (Article 10)

When the Sultana exploded about 1AM on April 27, 1865, more than 1,700 people died and over 500 were injured, and all but 300 were recently repatriated Union prisoners of war. Unfortunately, the story is not well known; but, by comparison, when the Titanic sank with the loss of 1,517 passengers and crew in 1912, that tragedy received worldwide attention then, and still does today.

Abraham Lincoln’s assassination on April 14th, the capture of the conspirators and death of the assassin which occurred over the next two weeks, and the gradual surrender of the Confederate forces throughout late April and early May, still dominated the news in the weeks after the loss of the Sultana. However, a few regional newspapers began to look into events surrounding the deaths of so many recently freed Union prisoners, and the news accounts universally alleged that the riverboat was grossly overloaded, the large loss of life was avoidable, and that there was evidence that the ship’s Captain bribed Army officials to get more passengers. By late May, 1865, the Army began a formal investigation and the panel of inquiry into the Sultana incident reported that the primary cause of the ship’s loss was a faulty boiler repair. However, the panel also found that the extremely high death and injury toll among the passengers and crew was avoidable and occurred because the Army officers in charge of the boarding process, with approval of the ship’s Captain, permitted over 2,300 people to board a ship certified to carry only 392! And, greed and bribery played a part.

The Army inquiry panel also heard testimony that Lt. Colonel Reuben G. Hatch (sometimes spelled as Reuben B.) was at least partly responsible for the vast overcrowding. Earlier in the war, Hatch had twice been reprimanded for graft and incompetence, but was never charged by a military Courts Martial. Witnesses told the Sultana investigators that Hatch, an Assistant Quartermaster assigned to Vicksburg, was accepting $1.00 (or more) of the $5.60 fare for each military passenger he would direct to board a specific ship. The owners and/or Captains of several riverboats, including J.C. Mason on the Sultana, were willing to pay the bribe to fill their ships with these lucrative passengers. Captain Mason died in the explosion, so he paid the ultimate price for his greed in allowing so many to board his ship.

Captain Frederick Speed, the Army officer who had responsibility for the boarding process, was charged with negligence and convicted but the finding was reversed before his sentencing. However, Lt. Colonel Hatch, who was at least as culpable as Captain Speed, had quickly mustered out of the army before the inquiry was completed and disappeared to avoid several subpoenas; so he was never officially charged. Therefore, after all of the investigations, even congressional hearings, no one was ever held personally accountable.

A recent PBS documentary on “The History Detectives” covered most of these facts, but may have left the mistaken impression that Abraham Lincoln bore responsibility for the tragedy. That is a stretch of facts, but deserves review.

So, who was Lt. Colonel Hatch and how was he connected to President Lincoln?

Reuben G. Hatch was the younger brother (or possibly cousin) of Ozias M. Hatch, a respected Illinois merchant and political leader, who was a long time friend and early supporter of Abraham Lincoln. Throughout Lincoln’s time as President, Ozias was the Illinois Secretary of State as well as often the “acting” Governor during frequent absences of the elected Governor.

There is no question that Lincoln respected and valued the advice of Ozias Hatch. However, the documentary ominously stated that Ozias was a “Major Contributor” to Lincoln’s campaigns, using a term that, in the 21st century, conjures up images of large, manipulative, and improperly influential political donations. However, political races in the mid-19th century were much simpler than today and the most valuable contributions from any supporter was not financial but speeches, sermons, and letters written to friends, colleagues, and especially to newspaper publishers. Since most newspapers were unabashedly partisan, the endorsement by a publisher was important to political success. On the other hand, little money was spent on campaigns except for travel and printed materials and Lincoln paid almost all of his own modest political expenses.

Reuben G. Hatch was five years younger than Ozias, was never very successful at school or business and seemed to get along as a young adult only through the generosity of Ozias. But, then came the War!

On July 26, 1861, three months after the start of the War, President Lincoln wrote to his first Secretary of War, Simon Cameron, “Please let Reuben B. (sp?) Hatch be appointed an Assistant Quartermaster assigned to General Prentess,” who was then the Commander of new Illinois regiments.

Certainly Ozias must have requested Lincoln’s recommendation and Reuben received the rank of Captain in an Illinois Quartermaster unit and, for once, had a real job handling transportation and supplies. He quickly made it more than a military task, however, and it soon became known that Reuben expected some payment for his influence in awarding contracts. He was one of those mid-level bureaucrats who, when involved in the vast expenditures that occur in war-time, was greedy enough to siphon off some money but was not bright enough to either become wealthy or to evade discovery. In 1862, he was charged with graft and incompetence by the Illinois Adjutant General, but avoided a Courts Martial through the intervention of Ozias who asked several prominent Generals, including Ulysses S. Grant, to intercede.

During the next two years, Reuben remained in the Quartermaster Corps, by then part of the Union Army and, apparently, kept a low profile and stayed out of trouble, even receiving a promotion to Major. In October 1864, he requested a transfer to the Louisiana division as a “Chief Quartermaster”, an important position responsible for supplies and transportation throughout the Mississippi River area. Although the selection for the post would be made by General Meigs, General Grant, by then Commander of all Union forces, received a copy of a recommendation for promotion of Reuben which we can assume was initiated by Ozias and forwarded through military channels. Grant, as well as Lincoln, received hundreds of similar recommendations and both frequently added some brief note and then forwarded the letter to the appropriate Commander. In this case, Grant added that, “Major Hatch might be considered for a lesser position, perhaps Assistant Quartermaster,” but he left that decision to General Meigs. Lincoln, in his added note, wrote that he “concurred with General Grant”; which was the last known connection between Reuben and Abraham Lincoln.

Four months later, in February 1865, Reuben, now a Lt. Colonel, was appointed as an Assistant Quartermaster by General Meigs and assigned to Vicksburg, Mississippi, which had been in Union control since July 1863. Reuben quickly found the opportunities for bribery were abundant and set up schemes for payment from many Captains of riverboats and owners of railroads. Clearly, he was directly involved in the massive, and improper, overcrowding of the Sultana, although he managed to avoid a Courts Martial despite clear evidence of illegal activity. How? (a) The faulty boiler was the official cause. (b) The military inquiry was haphazard due to the end of the War. (c) Reuben Hatch was quickly discharged as the Quartermaster Corps largely disbanded; and he then hid from investigators. (d) And, as before, likely more help from Ozias.

I do not believe, however, that it is historically accurate, or even basically fair, for the PBS documentary to have exaggerated the involvement of Abraham Lincoln. Certainly Lincoln knew and respected Ozias Hatch, but it is not clear that he even knew Reuben.

It seems to me that the untimely and preventable deaths of so many who were very close to home and reunion, would be a sufficiently tragic, and dramatic, human interest story, without adding speculation and blame directed at Abraham Lincoln.

To learn more about the Sultana, I recommend the following sources. “Disaster on the Mississippi” by Gene Saleker, Naval Institute Press, 1996 and, for a brief review, an article available on line in the American History Magazine June 6, 2006.

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Lincoln and the Sultana Tragedy-part 1 (article 9)

Imagine this, if you can.

You have just been repatriated from one of the worst Confederate prisoner of war camps, after nearly two years of captivity under horrific conditions. Somehow, you managed to survive but you have seen thousands of your fellow prisoners die in the camp from malnutrition, rampant disease, and a lack of medical care for their wounds. And, you are leaving behind several thousand others who are yet too weak to be moved. But you are going home! You endure three days of travel overland to the Mississippi River port of Vicksburg where you find yourself in the midst of five thousand other former POWs who are all also anxious to begin the river journey to Cairo, Illinois and from there home to their families. You follow the officers’ orders to move forward to begin to board a large riverboat at the end of the dock and you realize that you will be very crowded for the three day voyage upriver. But, you are going home! Despite being packed in so tightly, over the next two days you can feel the spirits rising among the men and some begin singing the patriotic songs of the Union, others sing sacred hymns and rejoice, and still others sing the ribald verses it seems only soldiers and sailors know. And, you are all going home! The ship gets quiet about midnight and you try to get as comfortable as possible. Then, in a split second, you are engulfed in scalding steam and fire, and in that moment, you realize you will not be going home.

Neither would over 1,700 others who died that night on the Sultana!

The Sultana was a 260 foot long, triple decked, coal fired, steam driven riverboat built in 1863 and it was considered to be one of the most modern and safest ships to ply the Mississippi River. On April 27, 1865, less than two weeks after the assassination of President Lincoln and ten days after the surrender of the last of the larger Confederate Armies, the Sultana exploded in a ball of fire just north of Memphis, Tennessee. Because most newspapers were still focused on the assassination and the capture of the conspirators (and death of the assassin) as well as the looming end to the War, the Sultana tragedy received little attention by newspapers at the time. There were, of course, official investigations and, while some suspected sabotage, the War Department concluded that one of the Sultana’s four large boilers had failed and when it exploded, the other boilers also destabilized; causing a rapid and catastrophic release of steam and fire. Many were killed instantly while hundreds more died in the frigid water.

As survivors began to tell of their experiences, it became clear that the Sultana was vastly overloaded with an estimated 2,300 passengers and crew, but a certified capacity of only 392! The term estimated must be used because there was no accurate manifest being verified as hundreds of men boarded the riverboat.

What circumstances would cause a ship’s Captain to sail under those conditions and Army officers to put so many men on board that specific riverboat?

While a boiler explosion caused the destruction of the ship, the tragic, and preventable, loss of so many lives was caused by the following convergence of human error and malfeasance. (1) Understandable eagerness of the former prisoners to get on the first possible riverboat out of Vicksburg and go home. (2) Poor decisions by Army officers who assembled so many men near the docks. (3) Greed of the Captain to load up on these lucrative passengers. And (4) perhaps the presence of one Army officer, Lt. Colonel Rueben G. Hatch, who had twice been reprimanded for graft and incompetence but had received recommendations in the past from General Ulysses S. Grant and from President Abraham Lincoln. Yes, Abraham Lincoln; but more about that in part 2.

The Public Broadcasting System (PBS) recently aired a documentary on “The History Detectives” about the disaster on the Sultana. The show accurately described many of the details, however, in my opinion, unnecessarily injected overly dramatized scenes and in a sensationalized story line, speculated that Abraham Lincoln bore responsibility for the tragedy.

In this article, we will explore the event and the official findings of the investigations. In part 2, we will take a closer look at the role of Lt. Colonel Hatch and his connection to Abraham Lincoln.

Two days before the accident, an engineer noticed a bulge on one of the four massive boilers that provided the steam to power the Sultana and he recommended an immediate repair. This required shutting down all four boilers and riveting a large plate over the bulge to reinforce the boiler. This was actually a very common type of repair if done correctly; however in this case, the repair was made in haste to meet a departure deadline and may not have been properly done.

J.C. Mason, Captain of the Sultana, was also a part owner and knew that the Army would pay a fare of $5.60 for each soldier transported to Cairo, Illinois at the convergence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. Therefore, it was in the Captain’s best financial interest to board as many passengers as possible, but he certainly did not want to over-load the riverboat to the point he might lose his ship. The Sultana had three large holds designed for the shipment of cattle and other goods, which the Captain had converted to accommodate more passengers; but the certification was still only for 392 people. Mason told an Army officer on the dock that the large ship “would be crowded but not over-loaded.”

When the nearly empty Sultana first docked at Vicksburg there were over 5,000 former prisoners of war within two miles of the dock anxiously awaiting their passage home. Army officers, who should have known better, moved most of the men toward the docks where they could see the waiting ship; and they began to press forward. Originally, officers were assigned to each of the several boarding stations to compile an accurate manifest as each man boarded and gave their name, unit, and home town; but the crush began to overwhelm those compiling the manifest. At some point, the officer in charge of the boarding process, Captain Frederick Speed, decided to just let the men board first and then to later have his staff move among the passengers to record their names on the manifest. Captain Speed was unaware that another group of over 400 men had pressed onto the ship after his staff had boarded to complete the manifest, but went to an area where passengers had already been recorded; so those additional men were never included in the final passenger count.

When the Sultana steamed away from Vicksburg, Mississippi, on April 24, 1865, we can only estimate that there were more than 2,300 passengers on board. What we do know is that at least 1,700 perished and, while over 500 were rescued, many had terrible injuries.

I certainly believe it is past time that the Sultana disaster receives historic attention and, for that, I applaud “The History Detectives” documentary. I only wish the tone had been more somber and thoughtful, and less dramatic and sensationalized.

In Part 2, we will look at the connection to Abraham Lincoln.

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