Abraham Lincoln’s near-apotheosis from man to national myth began soon after his April 15, 1865 death at the hands of a disgruntled actor. Just a day later, on Easter Sunday, preachers and priests compared his death to Jesus’ in pulpits around the nation. Millions of Americans paid homage to him in the ensuing weeks as his body was carried nearly 1,700 miles from Washington D.C. to its final resting place in Springfield, Illinois. Reporters for the nation’s largest newspapers breathlessly covered the funeral train procession. Right around the time Lincoln’s body was heading to Buffalo, NY, a colossal disaster erupted between podunk Arkansas and Tennessee.
Editors barely noticed.
In the early morning of April 27, 1865, as the steamboat Sultana glided seven miles north of Memphis, passengers suddenly awoke to chaos: fire seemingly everywhere, a flash flood of erupted boilers’ super-heated water and steam, fire bricks and nails blown down decks and turned into deadly shrapnel. Survivor J. Walter Elliott recounted the ensuing scene as a “holocaust” marked by women, children and veterans alike rushing from the rapidly expanding inferno “wringing their hands, tossing their arms wildly in the air, with cries most heart-rending, they rush pell-mell over the guard into the dark, cold waters…” In the chaos, he saw a sitting old man, “bruised, cut, scalded in various places, both ankles broken and bones protruding. With his suspenders he had improvised tourniquets for both legs,” Elliott recalled. The man asked for help, but Elliott—like so many other Americans of the era—never learned to swim. And a hypothermia-inducing Mississippi River isn’t the best place to start.
An estimated 1,800 lives were lost, making this by far the worst single-boat maritime disaster in U.S. history. A majority of them were Union POWs from the Andersonville and Cahaba prisons heading home after surviving both battle and horrid prison camp conditions. The Sultana was registered to carry 376 people but an estimated 2,400 were jammed onboard as a result of greed fueled by competition between steamboat companies. “Steamboat operators were the Halliburton of the era—private contractors making money off war,” Sultana author Alan Huffman told the Cincinnati Enquirer. “With the Civil War at an end, they saw this trip as the last chance to make money.”
Officials who helped pad contractors’ pockets stood to make a killing on the side. Ample evidence shows one colonel did just this with the Sultana. The connection between this man, and a politician named Ozias Hatch riding back to Springfield on the president’s funeral train, gave rise to one of the worst decisions Lincoln ever made.
The explosion of three boilers was the most immediate cause of the Sultana disaster. But of all the men who deserve blame for the extent of the tragedy, none is more culpable than chief quartermaster Col. Reuben Hatch. Hatch was charged with providing food and shelter to the thousands of Union POWs, recently released from Andersonville and Cahaba, who were shuttled to Vicksburg to be boarded onto northbound steamboats. The weary soldiers didn’t care which one carried them home. One company could help them get back to loved ones as well as another.
Hatch and the Sultana Captain Cass Mason did care.
Mason’s boat belonged to the Merchants’ and People’s line, which had contracted with the government for the transportation of freight and troops. Financially, he was struggling and had every incentive to exploit the feds’ offer of up to $10 per soldier as much as possible. One of the first people he met in Vicksburg was Hatch, from whom he demanded a full boat’s worth of passengers for his trip upriver. Many Sultana experts believe around this time Mason bribed Hatch, who would have been more than game. “Vicksburg was essentially a cesspool of corrupt and incompetent officials in 1865,” says Memphis lawyer Jerry Potter, who has studied the disaster for 37 years. Even in this climate, Hatch stood out. "On a scale of one to 10, 10 being the most corrupt, Reuben Hatch would be a 12."
In his authoritative book The Sultana Tragedy, Potter lays out a series of mishaps and highly shady behavior which marked Hatch’s career. At every misstep along the way, his older brother Ozias Hatch was there to pick him up—often with Lincoln’s assistance. Ozias had helped steer Lincoln’s failed U.S. Senate campaign in 1858 and his successful presidential run two years later. As Illinois’ secretary of state he was one of Lincoln’s closest friends and most influential benefactors.
This pull came in handy early in the Civil War. Capt. Reuben Hatch had gotten himself into a fine mess as an assistant quartermaster back home in Illinois. After allegedly skimming profits from government lumber purchases, he’d reportedly dumped the incriminating ledgers in the Ohio River, but—alas—they’d washed up on the bank and been found. As the investigation unfolded, it was also reported Hatch had illegally sold army supplies for personal gain and pocketed even more money off a fraud involving the charter of steamboats for the government.
Evidence against Hatch was overwhelming; he was on the brink of being court-martialed. So in 1862 Ozias Hatch wrote to Lincoln, telling him the charges against his little brother were “frivolous and without the shadow of foundation in fact,” according to Potter. Lincoln then forwarded the letter to a judge advocate general, assuring him Ozias Hatch was a good, true man, and that “I also personally know Captain R.B. Hatch, and never before heard anything against his character.”
It was decided a three-person civilian commission should investigate the case, and Lincoln weighed in with who he thought should be on it. The resulting appointments included Lincoln’s former law partner in Springfield and a former editor of the Chicago Tribune who would later be appointed assistant secretary of war under Lincoln.
This hand-picked commission acquitted Hatch of all charges.
A couple years later, Hatch resigned from the army after two lawsuits in two states had been filed against him. Then, all the sudden, he wanted back in. This, despite the fact he had just gone absent without leave for three months. Again, big brother intervened, and again Lincoln relented. He wrote to his secretary of war: “O.M. Hatch, whom I would like to oblige, wants Capt. R.B. Hatch made a [quartermaster] in the Regular Army—I know not whether it can be done conveniently, but if it can, I would like it.”
Not long afterward Reuben Hatch was officially promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel and a chief quartermaster gig. Only one small hurdle remained: In early 1865 a military examining board judged Hatch knew so little about being assistant quartermaster he wasn’t mentally fit to hold that position, never mind the more demanding one he'd bagged. Yet the board’s report was delayed going up the chain of command, and in early April Lincoln and General Ulysses S. Grant recommended Hatch be promoted to full colonel and assigned chief quartermaster of the Department of the Gulf.
That’s how Hatch found himself in Vicksburg on the morning of April 24 in the room of Capt. Frederic Speed, an assistant adjutant general charged with processing Vicksburg's departing soldiers. Hatch was making sure they were on the same page with putting all the prisoners of a nearby parole camp and hospital on to the docked Sultana. Speed agreed, believing the number would be in the 1,300 to 1,400 range.
Unfortunately, the bureaucrats decided to delay the usual advance paperwork in taking roll and instead essentially log the passengers with a head count as they boarded. So they had no clear idea how many soldiers were actually in the area.
As the day wore on, it became apparent there were significantly more than originally assumed. Three trains arriving from the parole camp disgorged hundreds upon hundreds of POWs, but the Sultana officials only made record of two of the trains. Hordes of soldiers limped on to the Sultana, ultimately causing the hurricane deck to sag despite extra supports that been been installed.
Through all of this, two empty steam boats docked near the Sultana at different times and waited for excess soldiers. On multiple occasions, different officers shared with Hatch their concerns that the Sultana was too overcrowded and the extra boats should be used. One of the boats was even with the same line as the Sultana.
Ultimately, these boats left Vicksburg practically empty. Hatch at least twice refused a junior officer’s strong advice to move some men. He apparently didn’t care the situation looked dangerous. Instead, he shirked his own responsibilities by punting the decision to Speed, who was at the parole camp and didn’t know about the roughly 1,000 extra passengers. Hatch had been informed hundreds of extra soldiers were boarding the Sultana, but he never bothered to walk on board to check out the conditions. It seems all he cared about was the bottom line.
An eyewitness watching from another boat recalled chatter among the last group of soldiers to be herded on to the Sultana. They were complaining “there was no room for them to lie down, or place to attend to the calls of nature. There was much indignation … They said they were not going to be packed on the boat like damned hogs.”
In the weeks following the disaster, the Sultana’s chief engineer said he believed the boat’s weakened boiler had exploded because its exterior was exposed to too much water. The water would have never sloshed so much, however, had the boat not been "top heavy and consequently inclined to careen over from side to side.”
Hatch was relieved of his duties on June 3, 1865 after the report of his incompetence from months earlier was finally approved. He repeatedly ignored subpoenas to appear in ensuing inquiries and tribunals, likely again benefitting from political connections, and died in 1871. Ultimately, nobody was held responsible for the disaster. One report to the secretary of war concluded the overcrowding should be written off as extenuating circumstance needed during war. Yet in late April 1865, the fighting was essentially over. The army, Potter adds, “absolved itself of any wrongdoing in the sacrifice of so many lives.”