Kaiama: 3 A.M., April 27, 1865. As the steamboat Bostona ii heads down the Mississippi river toward Memphis, its crew sees a mysterious fire in the distance…
Kaiama: Then, in the water below, bodies – dead, or barely alive, clinging to bits of timber.
J Walter Elliott: There seemed to be acres of struggling humanity on the waters from all around me rose shrieks, cries, prayers and groans…
Kaiama: The steamboat sultana is on fire…
Kaiama: It’s a vision of hell, some 2000 men, women and children are trapped in an inferno. Many are emaciated prisoners, on their way home after the civil war. Some eighteen hundred souls would perish that night. It was one of the worst disasters in us maritime history… and no one knows what caused it.
Kaiama: Was it an act of sabotage by a former confederate agent, the largest terrorist act on us soil prior to 911?
Tukufu: This was an organized effort by Confederate spies
Wes: Pressure’s starting to climb. I’m gonna step back from here.
Kaiama: Was it the result of a corrupt union officer who turned a blind eye to a shoddy boiler repair?
Wes: Question: Did you consider the boiler safe after?
Wes: Answer: I did not.
Kaiama: And could the chain of evidence reach all the way to the white house?
Kaiama: Turns out this guy is connected to Abraham Lincoln.
Kaiama: Tonight on History Detective Special Investigations –
Kaiama: The sinking of the steamboat Sultana.
VO: History Detectives special Investigations was made possible in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and by contributions to your PBS station, from viewers like you. Thank you.
Kaiama: Gentleman, we have a very exciting case here. A one hundred and fifty year old mystery. Who or what sank the Steamship sultana in 1865?
Wes: Picture this. It’s night April 27th 1865. The Sultana is steaming up the Mississippi River. Suddenly a fire breaks out and it’s a raging inferno. Four decks just poof. 1800 people go in to the water, and all these people die.
Tukufu: This is more than died on the Titanic.
Wes: it’s amazing, so little is known about this.
Kaiama: I had literally never heard about it.
Kaiama: On April 24th, the sultana left Vicksburg, Mississippi for a journey north to Cairo, Illinois
Wes: take a look at this. This is the last known photo of the Sultana. . This was taken at Helena Arkansas. And just look at all the guys that are crowded onto every deck on the steamboat.
Tukufu: This boat is completely packed.
Kaiama: Despite three government investigations and a variety of theories for what might have gone wrong, no-one was ultimately held responsible for the deaths.
Wes: Was it an accident? Was it sabotage? The fact is, to this day, no one knows what happened.
Tukufu: where do we start?
Wes: Well you know look there is one group that has really kept the memory of the sultana disaster alive. And that is the Sultana Survivors Association – they are meeting next week in Memphis.
Tukufu: I want to visit the site of the wreck, to see if I can find some forensic evidence that will help us determine what caused the fire.
Wes: Good deal!
Kaiama: So guys, I’m actually going to head into the archive. Maybe the answers to some of the questions we are asking are already here in the documents we have, hiding in plain sight.
Tukufu: We got a plan, let’s get busy
Wes: Right, let’s go.
Kaiama: Let’s make it happen
Wes: Although the history books have paid their relatives little attention.
Wes: Hello, hello, hello. How are you?
Wes: Descendants of the survivors of the sultana disaster have kept the memory alive.
Wes: Nice to meet you
(Introducing themselves all overlapped)
Wes: Generation after generation.
Louis: We’ve found that less than 2% of all the people we’ve ever mentioned it to have even heard of it.
Wes: Of course we want to hear you know your personal stories from your ancestors, you know because there may be things that haven’t been talked about that we need to learn.
Tukufu: We’re hoping this group can help us piece together what happened that night.
Pam: Well this is my great-great grandfather Adam Schneider who died on the Sultana
Clint: My great grandfather was John Daniel Riddle…
David: I’ve got a photograph of Ann Annis who was one of the few female survivors.
Wes: Ann had travelled from Wisconsin to Vicksburg with her 7 year old daughter to bring her ailing husband home from the war.
Wes : Anne’s story is striking, but it’s not until I meet Dorothy Gouzoules that I find what may be a lead.
Dorothy: Well my great-great-uncle was Chester Berry. He was a survivor on the Sultana and years later he collected all the stories from other survivors he could locate and he printed this book.
Wes: “Loss of the Sultana” by Rev. C.D. Berry. Printed in 1892.
Dorothy: And there’s his picture.
Wes: Like Chester Berry had survived the horrors of the Andersonville prison camp in Georgia, where thousands died of starvation and disease.
Dorothy: When he got out of there, he went on the Sultana. Poor Uncle Chester thinks he’s going home and the ship blew up and so many people were killed
Wes: The eyewitness accounts of Chester Berry and his fellow survivors contain tantalizing clues about the cause of the disaster.
Robert M. Hamilton: [It was] about two o’clock on the morning of April 27, 1865… Every foot of the deck was covered with sleeping soldiers.
W.A. Huld VO: I was awakened by a terrible crash, and nearly smothered with hot steam…
J Walter Elliott: From all around me rose shrieks, cries, prayers and groans…
Survior: A piece of iron glanced my head…
Wes: The Berry book makes clear that there had been some sort of explosion. Its stories of flying shrapnel and escaping steam have given rise to a number of theories in the survivor group.
Norman: Everything I’ve read says the boiler exploded.
Tukufu: The boiler? But why did it explode?
Norman: It was in a weakened condition even before it got to Vicksburg.
Tukufu: According to some accounts the explosion punctured the wooden deck and a rain of hot coals from the furnace quickly set it ablaze.
Hiram Allison: I saw a great hole torn through the hurricane deck, and fire coming through.
Jerry Potter: The gaping hole in the deck…
Gene: mhm, is right here.
Tukufu: Gene Salaker and jerry potter are amateur historians, who have studied the survivor accounts and written books about the disaster.
Gene: And then what happens is with the boilers gone there’s nothing supporting these smoke stacks and the smoke stacks are going to start to fall And one falls forward 1 falls back and the one that fell backwards falls right into the hole where the boilers blow up.
Tukufu: The hail of flying shrapnel which followed sparked a second theory among survivors.
David Eckness: Some people believed that the explosion was due to a bomb planted by a Confederate spy.
Samuel H. Raudebaugh VO: I believe some ally of Jeff. Davis put a torpedo in the coal…with the intent to destroy the boat and its … heroes on their way home.
Wes : The Sultana had arrived safely in Memphis on the evening of April 26, then crossed the river to a coal barge near Hopefield, Arkansas, a hotbed of guerilla activity during the war. From midnight to around 1 am on the 27th, the Sultana crew loads a thousand bushels of coal. Chester Berry and other survivors believed this was a perfect opportunity for sabotage.
Wes: Anybody ever heard of a bomb or sabotage?
Clinton: At the beginning, yes, they suspected sabotage
Wes : But for the men and women on board that night, there was no time to figure out what had happened.
As the fire tears through the wooden boat, many face horrific choices – leap into the freezing Mississippi, or burn to death
Wes: Ann Annis clings to the rudder, now separated from her husband and daughter. One survivor witnessed the family’s final moments.
C.J. Lahue: I heard a lady crying for help… I also saw her husband, with a little child on his back, struggling in the water for a moment, then sinking…
David Eckness: She was unable to help them at all, and that was the last she ever saw of them…
Wes: Chester Berry -- his skull fractured in the explosion – resigns himself to drowning…and then
Dorothy (reads from her uncle’s book): I heard my mother’s voice “God save my boy.”
Chester Berry: I fiercely clutched the board and said… “Mother, by the help of God your prayer shall be answered.”
Dorothy: And the rest is history… he lived to write the book.
Tukufu: You know I like a good story and these people have some great stories, but they don’t seem to have all the facts down.
Wes: Well, hey you know look there were three separate commissions designed to investigate the Sultana disaster.
Wes: Kaiama’s been digging online. She’s emailed that the government investigation files are at the national archives in Washington D.C.
Wes: I’m gonna head there.
Tukufu: OK Cool. I’m interested in the wreckage itself. Any physical evidence about the cause of the explosion .So I’m going to go see what I can find out about the actual boat ”
Wes: This things in the middle of the Missippi river, are you scuba certified?
Tukufu: No, no I’m gonna get there on the water but I’m not going to get in the water if you know what I mean
Wes: (overlapped) Alright, alright, man I’ll see you later.
Tukufu: See you later.
Wes: The National Archives in Washington D.C. houses the war department’s records of the civil war. I‘m searching the files from the Washburn Commission.
Wes: That’s one of the three commissions the federal government used to investigate the Sultana disaster
Wes: The Sultana was one of many privately owned steamboats contracted by the war department to carry former prisoners of war home – so the government needed to figure out what had gone wrong. It appears that investigators took testimony as early as the morning of April 27th, even as survivors were still being rescued. One account leaps out.
Wes: Right here is the testimony of a guy named R.G. Taylor. Now Taylor was a mechanic or repairman in Vicksburg.
Wes: According to his testimony while docked at Vicksburg, and before it loaded the passengers, the sultana’s crew had discovered a crack in one of the boilers. Unrepaired it would have prevented the sultana from steaming up river. The chief engineer urged Taylor to put a patch on the crack.
Wes: And Taylor says but wait a minute this is going to take maybe two or three days. And the chief engineer says we don’t have that much time, you got to get this thing done.
Wes: Taylor was eventually persuaded to make a temporary repair.
Wes: Now, when you read the testimony, the commissioners say to Taylor,
Question: Did you consider the boiler safe after the job was completed.
Answer: I did not.
Question: Did you say to the Chief Engineer that it was not safe.
Answer: I did not, he should have known as well as I.
Wes: So already, we have a clue here, as to what may have caused the explosion on the Sultana.
Tukufu: There may be clues in the wreck itself, but where exactly does the Sultana lie? We tracked down a specialist in maritime archeology. Steven James has successfully located and recovered other ship wrecks. We sent him an 1874 map of where the Sultana is believed to have gone down. He showed us how the Mississippi river has changed its course over the 150 years since the disaster leaving the wreck somewhere beneath this soybean field… so, no scuba gear necessary.
Tukufu: What is this thingamajig?
Steve: This thingamajig is what’s called a magnetometer. As an underwater archeologist, I use it all over the oceans lakes and rivers, but this is a terrestrial model. Still it’s the main tool for finding shipwrecks,
Tukufu: What does it do?
Steve: Well it detects metal. And on shipwrecks like the Sultana, we’ll the boilers, we’ll have the ship’s fastenings, we’ll have the ships wheels, the shafts, we’ll have the engines. Anything that’s metal this will pick up.
Tukufu: So you’ve actually had to mow this entire area with this thing.
Steve: Back and forth, back and forth, and it’ll take us hours to do all this. And then we’ll take it back and we’ll analyze the data, we’ll manipulate it and what we’ll produce is a magnetic contour map that shows us hot spots where these ship wreck components are buried.
Tukufu: Alright, so can we get busy with this?
Steve: Let’s go to work.
Wes: Although the patched boiler had been a focus of the Washburn investigation, no conclusion was reached.
Wes: It’s a little frustrating, but as I search the files, I stumble on something. Survivors had told investigators that the steamship wasn’t just packed; it appeared to have been dangerously overloaded.
Wes: Remember David from the descendants group –Well, here's some testimony from his great-great-grandmother Anne Annis. "Great fear was felt by everybody, on account of the large number of passengers, and the boat being top-heavy."
Wes: On April 24th, trainload after trainload of union veterans and former prisoners of war arrives at Vicksburg wharf, and board the sultana
Cpl George M. Clinger: “We were driven on like so many hogs until every foot of standing room was occupied.”
Wes: In fact, there were so many prisoners piled on top of the hurricane deck—that's the uppermost deck of this layer cake steamboat, that the deck roof started sagging and stanchions, big posts, had to be put under the deck to keep the roof from collapsing
Wes: In the end nobody knows for sure how many people were actually, uh, put onto the Sultana. But estimates range as high as 2400 passengers.
Wes: Now here’s the interesting thing. The certificate of use for the Sultana called for a total of 76 cabin passengers and no more than 300 deck passengers.
Wes: Here’s the sad part, none of this needed to happen.
Wes: I discover that while the sultana was being overloaded, two other steamboats docked at Vicksburg, looking for returning soldiers to carry north… first, the lady gay… and later that afternoon, the Pauline Carroll…
Wes: The Army official who oversaw the contracting of private steamboats to transport the soldiers and was chief quartermaster, Reuben Hatch. But Hatch allowed the other two steamboats to depart the wharf, empty.
Wes: Instead of dividing all of these soldiers up between the various steamboats, Hatch allowed thousands to be loaded onto the Sultana.
Wes: You know, there is a, uh, whistleblower in all of this. A guy named William Kerns. He's the assistant quartermaster. So he's working for Reuben Hatch. And he's repeatedly – And he comes into the office and says to - to Hatch, as Sultana's being loaded, "Too many guys are going on here." Later, Hatch himself admits hearing Kerns come into his office, and imploring him to put six to eight hundred prisoners on the Pauline Carol. But he ignored him. The question is, why?
Wes: We don’t know what caused the explosion, but one thing is certain, the overcrowding is the reason so many people lost their lives.
Wes: Hey Kaiama,
Kaiama: Wes you know, I was just looking through the stuff, this is fascinating
Wes: Hey great listen we need to find out about a guy named Reuben Hatch. He was the quartermaster in Vicksburg, Mississippi and he was the guy who oversaw all the loading of the troops onto the Sultana, okay?
Kaiama: Okay, got it.
Wes: Cool. Bye.
Tukufu: Archaeologist Chet Walker is taking to the sky to hunt for the buried steamship.
Tukufu: OK so what do we got here?
Chet: Okay, this is a small UAV and we’re gonna use this to make an air photo of this field as well as we create a 3D model of the ground surface.
Tukufu: Okay, but what good is that going to do me, if most of the boat is buried.
Chet: We’ll be able to take the data from the magnetometer and drape it onto this data
Tukufu: The magnetometer will locate items beneath the earth, the aerial photograph will show their positions in relation to each other.
Tukufu: So we need this in order to be able to match that…
Chet: We’ll combine the two.
Tukufu: Okay, cool, cool. So how do we get this out there?
Chet: So I’m going to hand it to you, and you’re going to shake it back and forth three times.
Tukufu: Okay! So we ready to do this? Three times?
Chet: Back and forth, three times.
Tukufu: 1, 2, 3…
Chet: Little quicker than that
Tukufu: 1, 2, 3. Woah! That baby gets up pretty high.
Chet: Sure does.
Tukufu: So what will it do? It’ll just keep going and taking pictures of things?
Chet: Exactly. It’s on a preprogrammed flight and it’ll just go back and forth over the whole field taking a bunch of photos, we’ll stitch all those photos together and make one big photo.
Tukufu: While we wait for the UAV results, Steve says the magnetometer may have located a large-sized piece of the ship.
Steve: Okay, our magnetic contour map, tells us there is a hotspot a large magnetic anomaly right in this area, there’s something large buried right under the bean field here.
Tukufu VO: THERE ARE CLUES ON THE SURFACE TOO.
Steve: Like right here we’ve got artifacts, so we’re in the right location.
Tukufu: Okay, alright.
Tukufu: What is that?
Steve: That is a uh, it’s a large nail, we call that a hull spike, uh probably fastened outer hull planking to the ribs of the, the steamboat. That’s uh, a very characteristic steamboat fastener.
Tukufu: And this thing here
Steve: Uh, looks like wrought iron, probably machinery related, uh most likely from the Sultana.
Tukufu: Steve thinks plowing the field for farming has likely turned up the metal fragments.
Tukufu: So I’m holding pieces of the Sultana in my hand?
Steve: Uh yeah, it looks that way, but that’s not what uh, that didn’t give us our signal. There’s something large and buried under here. But these are artifacts from the vessel. When we finish our survey, we’ll find other hotspots, hopefully.
Wes: So why would chief quartermaster hatch overload the sultana and let those other steamboats leave empty? His past certainly makes me suspicious.
Wes: So what have you found out about Reuben Hatch?
Kaiama: He is a very interesting character. At the start of the war, he’s working as a Quartermaster in Cairo, IL. I found this article in the Chicago tribune. It’s dated Dec 1861. This is his 1st big job and he’s already getting into quite a bit of trouble.
Wes: What kind of trouble are we talking about?
Kaiama: Well, this is the port that supplies the majority of the lumber to General Grant’s army for his troops, right? Now Hatch as Quarter Master is working with various lumber companies buying lumber at a certain price but getting bogus receipts for a higher price and pocketing the difference
Wes: So he’s taking a kickback from the lumber.
Kaiama: He is taking a kick back and he’s keeping 2 separate sets of books.
Wes: Of course
Kaiama: 1 private, 1 public.
Kaiama: So the Secretary of War calls for an investigation. Hatch gets wind of this, and realizes he’s about to get arrested so what does he do? dumps his private ledgers into the Mississippi river. Unfortunately for Hatch the docs wash up on shore and end up getting seized as part of the investigation. So they got the goods on him!
Wes: (laughing) Ok so he’s caught red handed now.
Kaiama: So the Army is set to court marshall him, but here’s the crazy thing, even though there is overwhelming evidence against him the investigation stalls.
Kaiama: and Hatch is back on the job within the year and he keeps getting into trouble: fraud, government graft. But never gets disciplined On the contrary he’s promoted.
Wes: I don’t understand it. How does this guy, this obvious criminal get appointed Quarter Master at Vicksburg Mississippi where he’s in charge of transporting all these troops North.
Kaiama: Putting Hatch in charge of the purse strings at Vicksburg was a job ripe with the opportunity for graft and corruption. Steamboat operators were paid by the head -- $5 for every enlisted man, and $10 per officer…
Kaiama: And Reuben Hatch’s chief clerk, George Denton even testified that a runner from one of the steamboats had come into the quartermaster’s office and said: are there any prisoners to go? If it takes money, we’ve got as much as anybody.
Kaiama: Had Hatch taken a bribe? His double dealing in the earlier case certainly makes me wonder.
Kaiama: Here’s the biggest mystery. February 1865, so we’re talking two months before the Sultana disaster, two months before he’s going to have his job in Vicksburg, right, he’s brought before the army competency review board and listen to what they have to say about him in their report.
Kaiama: Of the 60 officers who have appeared before this board not more than 1 or 2 can compare with Captain Hatch in degree of deficiency.
Wes: Somebody is protecting Reuben Hatch. The question is who?
Wes: While Kaiama investigates hatch, my next stop is in Louisville, Kentucky, which is home to a steamboat of the kind that once operated on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.
Wes: I want to talk to some of the crew, and figure out if the patched boiler on the Sultana might have caused the explosion?
Wes: Captain? Wes Cowan.
Mark: Mark Doty.
Wes: First up is Captain Mark Doty; he says that in April 1865 the Mississippi was in near flood conditions. That would have made things especially challenging for the sultana’s captain.
Mark: They would have had to fire the boilers a little bit hotter to keep up with the steam that it’s calling for fighting against 8 mile and hour current.
Wes: So, they’re working the engines really hard and they’re maybe 2,000 as many as 3,000 passengers on this 260 foot steamboat that had a capacity of 360 count passengers. So what happens?
Mark: It depends on where the weight was if they were up higher on the top decks ship would be very top heavy and unstable.
Wes: Mark says a top-heavy Sultana would’ve ‘careened’, or rolled from side to side as she fought the current, further straining the engines.
Wes: Yeah well there were, there were I can tell you
Mark: There were?
Wes: There were hundreds of men up on the top deck.
Wes: Alright, very good. Thanks a lot.
Mark: Nice meeting ya.
Wes: Nice meeting you, too.
Wes: Today, The Belle of Louisville’s boilers are fired by diesel, not coal. But some things haven’t changed
Wes: It’s hot in here!
Wes: Wes Cowan.
Jim: Hi Wes! Jim McCoy, Chief Engineer how are you?
Wes: Hey Jim great so we’re towards belly of the beast here, right?
Jim: This is the Belle’s engine room.
Wes: Standing here it looks pretty safe but in the 1860’s this would have been a dangerous place.
Jim: It was very dangerous, things moving all the time, uninsulated piping, un-insulated boiler.
We: And in the 1800’s, he says, the boiler was by far the most hazardous piece of the engine.
Jim: Unlike today, there were a lot of uh boiler explosions uh from a variety of causes.
Wes: Uh if you had a crack in the boiler and uh you had it repaired was that pretty common. Was that pretty common? Was a repaired crack safe?
Jim: Ah if it was properly done a lot of times they would ah drill a hole at either end of the crack to stop the stop the crack from moving and then braze or paint in ah material to close whatever crack or fracture they had.
Wes: Jim says without more hard evidence, it’s impossible to prove the boiler caused the explosion on the Sultana.
Wes: But he agrees the special conditions that night could have proved fatal.
Jim: If your boat has an awful lot more people on it than it’s designed for or certified for and its generally top heavy -- then that could be also a big, a big factor.
Tukufu: Does the wreck itself contain the evidence we are missing?
Tukufu: Steve and Chet’s team have combined the data from the survey onto a high resolution image, and brought it to the soybean field.
Tukufu: So these are the results of your surveys.
Steve: Well this magnetic contour map we put all the data together on top of the aerial and it shows we’ve got some major hits in the area.
Tukufu: Steve’s certain we have found the wreck of the steamship, the hull, and possibly remains of the boilers.
Steve: One of our best hits probably where the hull remains are over by this tree line here.
Tukufu: Right here?
Steve: You can see the hit here and that corresponds to right over here.
Tukufu: Oh, okay. Can your results tell us the cause of the explosion?
Steve: Short answer is no. That would take a major excavation especially since the wreck is buried under sediment and under water. It would be expensive and very time consuming.
Tukufu: So this is important because it tells us where the Sultana is. But also you are telling me there is no quick answer here.
Steve: That’s correct
Tukufu: Hey Wes, Tukufu here.
Wes: How’s it going?
Tukufu: look the survey is done and we found where the Sultana is, but there is no evidence about the cause of the explosion.
Wes: Listen, I have a hunch that the overcrowding may have played a bigger role than we thought.
Tukufu all right, we are going to have to go down a different road.
Wes: The boat was top heavy. That might have stressed the boiler, to bursting point. But we just don’t have enough evidence. The bottom line, I need a new lead.
Tukufu: Alright, talk to you soon.
Tukufu: Luckily we do have another theory to dig into. Some of the survivors’ descendants thought that confederate sabotage had caused the disaster. I’m at the Memphis public library to see what the local newspapers were saying at the time.
Tukufu: Okay, listen to this headline. “Horrible disaster on the River, explosion and burning of the steamer Sultana: Over a thousand lives lost.” This is from the Memphis Daily Bulletin and this is what they had to say two days after the explosion. “Was it a fiendish atrocity? A well informed machinist who was on board the Sultana says there were three distinct explosions. And there is a horrible suspicion that the Sultana was intentionally blown up.” Furthermore listen to this!
Tukufu: “The probability of the explosion having been caused by the bursting of a shell in the furnace has many believers among experienced river men.” The big question is if there was a bomb, who put it there?
Tukufu : I want see if there’s anything more on confederate sabotage in government files. Somewhere in here is the 70-volume official record of the civil war.
Tukufu : Okay, this is what we were looking for. Now the war of the rebellion, “Official Records of the Union and Confederate armies.” So these are official documents, and this is from a report delivered April 25, 1865. Right before the explosion on the Sultana. And listen to what he has to say: “A number of men employed by the rebel authorities to destroy government property and steam-boats.”
Tukufu: According to union army intelligence, an organized band of confederate spies known as “boat burners” destroyed over sixty steamboats during the war…
Tukufu: …including the city of Madison at Vicksburg. And the champion at Memphis.
Wes: The official record says nothing about the sultana being sabotaged, but we may have a lead.
Wes: While Tukufu was in the archive, I’ve located a relative of one of the organizers of the boat burners.
Wes: Hey Joe, how are you? Let’s go inside
Joe: Yes, come on in.
Wes: Joseph Thatcher is the great-great grandson of Thomas Courtney
Wes: I thought I knew a lot about the Civil War but I’ve never heard of your great-great-grandfather Thomas Courtney. Tell me about him. He’s wearing that Confederate overcoat there.
Joe: [He] came to this country in 1842 as a 20 year old uh to make his fortune. And he ended up in St. Louis as an agent selling Marine and Fire insurance for all the steamboats on the river.
Wes: So he knew a little about steamboats
Joe: Oh yes indeed. He was an idealist who really hated what the Lincoln govt was doing at the beginning of the Civil War, He joined General Sterling Price then in 1863, Price was head of the confederate troops and armies in the West. And he had a group of Boat Burners so called, that were trying to set fire to steamboats.
Wes: you know these steamboats; they would be ripe for sabotage.
Joe: All wood.
Wes: All wood, just like a floating matchbox, you know
Joe: (overlapped) Right, right. And Courtney knew all about the hazards of boiler explosions on steamboats. So he came up with this the coal Torpedo.
Wes: I’ve never ever seen one of these.
Joe: That’s right; there are only four we know about still in existence. So we have some remnants of pitch on here.
Wes: So it looks like it’s got some remnants of pitch on here.
Joe: They used pieces of coal as patterns, cast iron hollow shells just like an artillery shell would fill them with gunpowder. This is the plug where they put the powder in, coat the outside with pitch and bits of coal. And then hide them in the coal piles for union ships.
Wes: And what happens then when it blows up?
Joe: The boiler ruptures, Shrapnel flies around and burning coal is scattered out of the firebox into the fire room.
Wes: This is such an ingenious, simple device but I’ve never heard about it.
Joe: That’s b/c most of the records were burned at the end of the war by the Confederate Gov when they fled Richmond,
Wes: I ask Joe if he knew of his great-great grandfather’s activities after he joined up with the rebels. Had he been directly involved in boat burning?
Joe: Thomas Courtney saved copies, his own copies of correspondence 1st one is the letter he wrote in December of 1863.
Wes: So he’s writing to His Excellency Jefferson Davis, “I propose to organize a secret service core at once-“to operate on the Mississippi river and tributaries.”
Joe: And by March 1864, Courtney’s authorized to go into action.
Wes: “Mr. Thomas E. Courtney is hereby authorized to supply a band of men for secret service against the enemy.” So this is the letter from the Confederate Secretary of War authorizing your great-great-grandfather to use coal bombs to blow up steamboats on the Mississippi river.
Joe: That’s right.
Wes: Well, that leads me to the next question and I’ve got to ask it. Did your great-great-grandfather use one of these coal bombs to blow up the Sultana?
Joe: As far as we know he had nothing to do with it at all. He was in England at this time the war was pretty much over. We’ve gone through all of his correspondence that survives there’s no mention of the Sultana at any time. And he certainly would not of approved on this kind of attack on prisoners being returned after the war. However it’s possible that some rogue agent might have done it.
Tukufu: Hey. How you doing?
Kaiama: Hey, Tukufu. So, Wes and I have been digging into the sabotage angle.
Tukufu: Really. I know Wes is investigating the coal torpedoes. What have you found?
Kaiama: Well, by April 1865, the Union Army had a list of 19 known Confederate saboteurs.
Tukufu: boat burners…
Kaiama: Yeah, all of them. But one guy, Robert Louden, was the worst.
Tukufu: Do you think he had anything to do with blowing up the Sultana?
Kaiama: I’m not sure. But I think I found someone who is – her name is DH Rule, and she’s waiting to meet you.
Tukufu: Excellent. I’m on my way.
Tukufu: It’s a juicy lead. In 1864 Robert Louden was arrested for burning the steamboat Ruth and killing 26 passengers. A military tribunal sentenced Louden to be hanged. But he escaped from prison and was still at large in April, 1865.
Tukufu: The author I am about to meet, says that Louden was a man possessed by a hatred of former union officials.
DH: His own family had been harassed, and imprisoned and exiled in their attempt to get them to reveal his location. His wife had been put in prison, his father they believed had been murdered by the Union forces.
Tukufu: Alright so we know that he had a reason to do it but could he have?
DH: He had gone on to steamers multiple times with even better security that Sultana could ever claim to have and destroyed them.
DH: This is from April 25th of 1865. It is from the St Louis Provost Marshalls Office. They put Robert Louden in New Orleans 3 days before Sultana was destroyed. And Alan Pinkerton’s reports identify him as moving north.
Tukufu: That’s New Orleans heading north but that doesn’t specifically put him at the site of the crime.
DH: The best witness to whether he was in Memphis is Robert Louden himself.
Tukufu: In the spring of 2000 she read about a conversation in a St. Louis bar in 1867, between a former union officer, William Streetor, and robert louden. Although Louden had been drinking, it’s a story she’s inclined to believe.
DH: There was an article by William Streeter in the St. Louis Globe Democrat He said, “I asked him in an offhand way what he knew about the Sultana explosion. Then he told me the story of the torpedo in the coal, he carried it aboard the steamer and deposited it in the coal pile in front of the boilers for the express purpose of causing her destruction.”
DH Rule: This was the big moment for me, I hadn’t been researching Sultana. I was researching Robert Louden and the prisons in St. Louis I knew who Streeter was. I knew who Louden was and I knew that Streeter was a credible source.
Tukufu: this is from May 6, 1888 that’s 23 years after the act and almost 20 yreas after the confession that’s here.
DH: Well we only know of this article in 1888 with Streetor’s statements in it. There may have been others before
Tukufu: but the guy is drunk.
DH: Drunk or not it’s not something he would have said just in an offhand manner. From the moment Louden made that confession his life was in danger in St. Louis. And the fact that Louden left the city so very abruptly in 1867 says quite a bit.
Tukufu: So you’re convinced that Louden blew up the Sultana.
DH: There will always be an element of doubt, but yes I believe he was capable of doing it and I do believe he did it.
Wes: You know look a drunken confession, not reported till 20yrs after the fact.
Tukfu: You gotta admit it’s possible
Wes: It’s possible sure but that doesn’t mean it happened.
Tukfu: It’s the only theory we have.
Wes: I don’t know I haven’t completely let go of the boiler theory.
Wes: You know maybe the office can hook us up with a mechanical boiler guy
Tukfu: they’re called mechanical engineers man
Wes: I sent our research to Larry Lee, a former chair of the of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers’ Heritage Committee.
Wes: You must be Larry!
Larry: You must be Wes! Good to meet ya!
Wes: Nice to meet you! You got the case file, right?
Larry: Did indeed
Wes: So what about that patch on the boiler? I mean, could that have caused the explosion?
Larry: The patch is interesting but it’s not really conclusive. Steamboat boilers were patched all the time. There were right ways and wrong ways and this wasn’t a very good 1, but doesn’t necessarily tell us anything by itself.
Wes: And while Larry thinks it could have been a coal torpedo, he’s convinced such an explosion would have sunk the ship almost immediately.
Larry: The coal torpedoes explosion would’ve been down as well as out. And likely put a hole through the boat.
Wes: Okay so we also know that the Sultana, after the explosion and fire, drifted 7 miles down the Mississippi river, so there was no hole in the bottom of the hull.
Larry: No, what was left it burned to the water line, but that lower portion of the hull finally ran aground, essentially intact.
Wes: So what you are saying is no coal torpedo…
Larry: It is unlikely.
Wes: Although others dispute whether a bomb would have punctured the hull, Larry believes the facts point in another direction. His theory involves concerns the captain and engineer on the bell of Louisville had shared.
Larry: One thing you’ve forgotten. The boat was very overcrowded and this mass of people were out on the sides and up top. They were going to make the boat very easy to rock…
Larry: As they navigated up the river. That boat was gonna rock and roll…
Larry: The boilers mounted on the boat did the same thing, they’re going up and down, and when they get up without water against it the metal can get red hot very quickly. Let me show you. I’ve kind of got an experiment I rigged up, uh simple, but I think it could show you what can happen with this.
Wes: Alright great, let’s go take a look.
Larry: So let’s go do it.
Larry: Okay Wes, there’s our firebox
Wes: That’s the steamboat’s fire box?
Larry: That’s the steamboat’s firebox
Larry: Here’s a little boiler I made out of nothing but a couple of soda cans riveted together.
Wes: Gotta gauge?
Larry: Got a gauge so we can see what’s going on.
Wes: Now what’s this silver part here?
Larry: This silver part is the area that will be right over the fire.
Wes: So that’s the hottest part of the boiler?
Larry: That’s correct, that’s correct.
Wes: Okay, great.
Les: And we just put her down here.
Wes: Okay, pressure’s starting to climb.
Wes: Okay climbing more, you know what, I’m going to take a step back from here.
Larry: Now it’s under pressure. Now when the boat starts rocking. The water is off the fire box. It rolls
Larry: Imagine that ten thousand times greater.
Larry: That’s what happened on the Sultana. When the boat rolls back the other way here comes this slug of water back onto this red hot metal which is weaker, you get this blast of super-heated steam and kaboom.
Larry: When it ruptured, it would have acted kind of liked a rocket and propelled things.
Larry: And we know some pieces actually even went up through two decks, up through the pilot house.
Wes: A flooded Mississippi had put a patched boiler under terrible pressure. But Larry suspects it was the rolling of the top heavy steamship that dealt the sultana its death blow.
Wes: So from your perspective, the overcrowding of the Sultana was likely a major contributing factor in the accident?
Larry: Oh indeed it was.
Wes: Yeah, really it blew a whole right in the side of our little fake boiler.
Tukufu: So, the overcrowding of the boat could have actually been the cause of the explosion.
Wes: Which brings us back to the Vicksburg wharf and the chief quartermaster, Reuben Hatch. If there is one person who is probably the most culpable in all this, it has got to be Reuben Hatch.
Wes: What i don’t understand, is how hatch was placed in such a position of responsibility -- loading the sultana -- after being accused of taking kickbacks earlier in his career?
Wes: Hey how are you?
Kaiama: Hey I’m OK.
Wes: What’d you find out about our buddy Reuben Hatch?
Kaiama: Well it turns out that this guy Ozias Hatch, Reuben Hatch’s brother is extremely well connected. Not only is he the Illinois Secretary of State he’s also a very close and personal friend and advisor to Abraham Lincoln.
Kaiama: It turns out that Hatch actually raised a lot of money for Lincoln in his 1860 Presidential campaign.
Wes: So what you’re saying is that Lincoln owes him.
Kaiama: Absolutely. Now you remember that Court Marshall the one that didn’t happen back in 1861,
Wes: You mean the one where Hatch threw is phony ledger books into the Ohio River right?
Kaiama: Exactly. It turns out that the reason this never went anywhere was because Ozias Hatch actually intervened on behalf of his brother with the President. I found a letter from Ozias Hatch to Abraham Lincoln I actually put it there for you, it’s this letter you have right here.
Wes: “To his Excellency Abraham Lincoln, the charges made are frivolous and without the shadow of foundation in fact.” Which is ridiculous because we know that the evidence against Hatch is overwhelming.
Kaiama: It’s signed by two other incredibly influential Illinois politicians. One of them being Jesse Dubois the State auditor of Illinois and the other is the Governor Richard Yates. So Lincoln receives this letter then forwards that letter this man Major General Henry Halleck. Henry Halleck was the man in charge of the court marshal and he wanted to pursue the investigation against Reuben Hatch but Lincoln adds his own personal endorsement to it and I was able to find that in the archives as well.
Wes: “I also personally know Captain R. B. Hatch and never before heard anything against his character…”
Wes: So I mean Lincoln is saying himself is saying look I know Hatch, he’s a good guy.
Kaiama: Exactly. And as a result the court martial was ended, doesn’t go further.
Wes: And Reuben hatch is back in business.
Kaiama: Back in business until 1863 when the man goes AWOL from the army for 3 months. But what’s incredible is that he comes back and he wants his job back as Quarter Master.
Wes: Oh, come on. He goes AWOL and he wants his job back come on.
Kaiama: Yeah he does but this time someone else comes into the picture. And that’s Brigadier General Montgomery Meigs. Montgomery Meigs is the head quarter master he’s in charge of all the quarter masters in the U.S. army and he says no this ends here; Reuben Hatch is not going to be a quartermaster again. But Ozias Hatch then goes back to Abraham Lincoln and intervenes on behalf of his brother again, and Abraham Lincoln is more than happy to oblige. He writes a letter to the Secretary of War Edwin Stanton.
Kaiama: Essentially Lincoln goes to Meigs’ boss and says make it happen. And that letter I was able to track down as well.
Wes: Let’s see, “My Dear Sir, My Illinois Secretary of State OM Hatch, whom I would like to oblige, wants Capt. R.B. Hatch made a QM in the Regular Army – I know not whether it can be done conveniently, but if it can, I would like it. Yours truly, A. Lincoln.”
Kaiama: The Secretary of War Stanton lets Meigs know that Reuben hatch should get his job back and in effect Reuben Hatch is reinstated and once again Hatch finds himself in a very good position.
Kaiama: Yeah. Now not only is Reuben Hatch reinstated, he doesn’t just want his job back he wants to be promoted, and once again through his brother who goes to Abraham Lincoln that happens. Lincoln along with Major General Ulysses Grant, prevail upon Montgomery Meigs to promote Reuben Hatch to Lieutenant Colonel and two weeks before the Sultana set sail Abraham Lincoln recommended that Reuben Hatch be promoted to full Colonel.
Wes: Wow. So in the end you’ve got these two army guys on the left who don’t want Hatch anywhere near the army, but then on the right you have all these politicians telling Lincoln you need to get Reuben Hatch back in the army.
Kaiama: And it goes all the way to The White House.
Wes: Great job.
Wes: Our trail of evidence has tracked all the way to the white house: was Lincoln in some way to blame for the sultana disaster?
Wes : I’m on my way to see a guy named Harold Holzer. He’s a renowned Lincoln scholar and I’m hoping he can help me with this.
Wes: I’ve sent him the documents which appear to show Lincoln protecting Reuben Hatch. But first, I want him to answer another question.
Wes: Why is it that most Americans have never heard of the Sultana disaster?
Harold: Well, it occurred in a cauldron of death. I mean, 750,000 people—as we now calculate the casualty number—had died in four years. Not to sound, you know, blasé about it, but what's another 2,000 people. Just a few more, um, before we close the books on the ugliest chapter in American history.
Wes: So Harold, you've seen all of these documents about Reuben Hatch. Um – How is it that Reuben Hatch, corrupt to the core, is protected all along the way by Abraham Lincoln.
Harold: Many Modern Americans think Lincoln did nothing but sit in the White House and write his brilliant speeches, meet with his Cabinet, direct his generals. In fact, he spent most of his time—directing political appointments. Firing Democrats, hiring Republicans, and then defending these Republicans, even if they performed poorly, against Democrats who criticized them.
Harold: Hey, in 1864, when this last letter is written, when Lincoln says, "If it's not a problem, please, you know, get my - my secretary of state's brother back on the payroll," at this period, a large segment of the Republican Party is saying, "We've got to dump Abraham Lincoln. He can't run for a second term.
Harold: Anybody but Lincoln—ABL. You know, that's this - the mantra in 1864. So, how do you prevent that? You reward people, so that when they are their friends become delegates to the national convention, they've got the patronage impetus to re-nominate the President of the United States. He used the patronage power to get re-nominated. There's no question about it.
Wes: He's a political animal, and that's how he got to the White House, and he's got to - got to take care of - of his base.
Harold: And when the Army began to expand so rapidly after the mobilization of April, 1861, that included quartermasters—civilians who went into the Army to supply it. And very often, skimmed off the top— as we think Reuben may have done. That is the political culture, and even Honest Abe was part of that culture.
Wes: Lincoln had protected Reuben Hatch from court martial in 1862. Two years later he helped him win his job back as quartermaster. And just two weeks before the sultana disaster, Lincoln had asked that Reuben Hatch be promoted to full colonel.
Wes: It's kind of hard not to escape the conclusion. If Lincoln had not protected him there is the possibility that the greatest maritime disaster in the history of our country might not have happened
Harold: Had Lincoln lived, I really think this might have come back to haunt him. This would have been something he would have had to answer and it would have been very difficult. So in a way, he escaped unscathed. ”
Wes: I want to share this with Kaiama and Tukufu.
Wes: Hey, guys
Tukufu: Hey, how you doing man?
Wes: Man this sultana thing. I mean, I think we got the answers. Sultana overcrowded. The overcrowding almost certainly led to the explosion of the boilers.
Kaiama: and you know it was Reuben Hatch our friend from earlier he’s the guy who was responsible for putting all those men on that boat.
Tukufu: So what did we learn from what Harold Holzer had to say.
Wes: Well, you guys are going to be interested in this: it’s really kind of sad, and sobering.
Holzer: How could Abraham Lincoln have allowed a dubious hack to have loaded down a ship with faulty boilers, overcrowding, and all of the - the problems that afflicted this - this doomed vessel? He escaped scrutiny, because he was deified in death. He could do no wrong. I think had he lived this might have gone to the top. This might have been a subject of inquiry and it would have been very difficult. It's an episode that history has completely ignored
Kaiama: Wow, I mean, I gotta say, this is a little hard to swallow. We have this preeminent Lincoln scholar effectively letting us know that this maritime disaster implicates Abraham Lincoln
Wes: and it might have come back to bite him at some point had he lived, had Lincoln lived.
Tukufu: Sometimes patronage, political power, money – they mix together and the result is disaster.
Wes: The sad thing is that none of this had to happen. This was not an act of war, this wasn’t an act of sabotage. All these recently released POWs from Andersonville, they were on their way home. They had given the flower of their youth to preserve the union.
Kaiama: They deserved better.
Kaiama: What the government didn’t do for them, the survivors had to do for themselves. Survivor groups met annually and that’s where Chester Berry took down their stories…
Kaiama: The groups continued meeting until the last survivor died in 1937.
George Haas : Would to God that I could forever blot from memory and sight the events of that terrible disaster. But they cling to me like a horrible nightmare, even visiting me in my dream.
Tukufu: Well Folks we thought it would appropriate to come on out here with you to where the resting place of the Sultana is.
Wes: This is the former bank of the Mississippi river right here. And all these sort of black spots are where the magnetometer survey came up with a big hit. Right here, this area here is where we think the main part of the wreck still lies.
Tukufu: Big parts of it we think are right in this area.
Wes: And it’s important to remember this is the final resting places for hundreds of union POWS who thought they were going home and that some of them are your ancestors.
Tukufu: This investigation meant a lot to us. I mean, it raises a lot of important questions about American history.
Wes: Abraham Lincoln had worked the levers of patronage, fighting to stay in power, and that power had helped save the union.
Wes: Turning a blind eye to hatch had come with terrible and unforeseen results. Nevertheless, it’s the eloquent words spoken by the sixteenth president, at Gettysburg that seem a fitting memorial to the soldiers who died on the Sultana.
Tukufu: So I thought it would be really appropriate to share with you some words that were read a long time ago over some other sacred ground.
Tukufu: “We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as final resting place for those who here gave their lives that the nation might live. But in a larger sense we cannot dedicate we cannot consecrate we cannot hallow this ground the brave men living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract.”
Tukufu: So we offer this story to you.
CARD ONE: RUEBEN HATCH IGNORED THREE SUBPEONEAS TO TESTIFY AT GOVERNMENT INVESTIGATIONS INTO THE SULTANA DISASTER.
CARD TWO: HATCH WAS NEVER PROSECUTED. HE DIED IN 1871 AT THE AGE OF 53
CARD THREE: UNTIL PEARL HARBOR, THE LOSS OF THE SULTANA WAS THE SINGLE GREATEST MARITIME DISASTER IN US HISTORY.