The worst maritime disaster in American history wasn’t the Titanic. It was the steamboat Sultana on the Mississippi River — and it could have been prevented.
In 1865, the Civil War was winding down and the country was reeling from Lincoln’s assassination. Thousands of Union soldiers, released from Confederate prisoner-of-war camps, were to be transported home on the steamboat Sultana. With a profit to be made, the captain rushed repairs to the boat so the soldiers wouldn’t find transportation elsewhere. More than 2,000 passengers boarded in Vicksburg, Mississippi . . . on a boat with a capacity of 376. The journey was violently interrupted when the boat’s boilers exploded, plunging the Sultana into mayhem; passengers were bombarded with red-hot iron fragments, burned by scalding steam, and flung overboard into the churning Mississippi. Although rescue efforts were launched, the survival rate was dismal — more than 1,500 lives were lost. In a compelling, exhaustively researched account, renowned author Sally M. Walker joins the ranks of historians who have been asking the same question for 150 years: who (or what) was responsible for the Sultana’s disastrous fate?
Replete with vivid details, including the terrible conditions in Confederate prisoner-of-war camps, Walker’s engrossing narrative builds to a horrific description of the terrified passengers’ actions and ensuing civilian rescue efforts. Although Walker conveys astonishment, even outrage, that no one was held responsible for this tragedy, she presents the evidence with an even hand. —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
In addition to archival illustrative material, Walker makes extensive use of primary sources…a finely detailed, well-researched chronicle of a little-known disaster. —Kirkus Reviews
Walker sets the scene for the Sultana disaster as she describes the captain’s greed (allowing 2,400 passengers when the legal capacity was 376), the chief engineer’s decision to repair rather than replace a deteriorating boiler, the flooded river, and other factors that would come into play….History buffs, and even adults, will be the biggest fans of this crossover YA title. —Booklist
Readers who have already devoured the abundance of material on the Titanic will be drawn to the story of the Sultana, which despite being the “worst maritime disaster in American history” is often overshadowed. A riveting and informative addition to nonfiction collections. —School Library Journal
Fans of Walker’s Secrets of a Civil War Submarine: Solving Mysteries of the H. L. Hunley (BCCB 6/05) already know her skill at illuminating maritime disaster from many angles; here she investigates the suspected bribery, commercial greed, military ineptitude, and myriad fatal decisions (possibly extending all the way up to President Lincoln himself ) that raised the disaster from sad to epic…This goes on every shipwreck aficionado’s must-read list. —Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books