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An estimated 1,800 of the 2,400 passengers were killed when one of the ships four boilers exploded, and the Sultana sank not far from Memphis, Tennessee. The reason that this disaster was mostly forgotten by history is because it took place soon after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, and during the closing weeks of the Civil War.
Most of the new passengers were Union soldiers, chiefly from Ohio and just released from Confederate prison camps such as Cahawba and Andersonville. The US government had contracted with the Sultana to transport these former prisoners of war back to their homes. The cause of the explosion was a leaky and poorly repaired steam boiler. The boiler (or boilers) gave way when the steamer was about 7 to 9 miles north of Memphis at 2:00 A.M. in a terrific explosion that sent some of the passengers on deck into the water and destroyed a good portion of the ship. Hot coals scattered by the explosion soon turned the remaining superstructure into an inferno, the glare of which could be seen in Memphis.