By: Hillary Delaney
The horrors of the Confederate prison at Andersonville, Georgia are well known to Civil War historians and laymen alike. With overcrowding, disease, mass starvation and unchecked violence among prisoners and their captors, it was arguably the worst war-time prison in American history. For the fortunate Union soldiers who survived their ordeal at Andersonville, release at the end of the war must have been just short of a miracle. On April 24, 1865, many of these survivors made their way aboard the steamboat Sultana at Vicksburg, MS, sealing their fate. The recently released Union soldiers were primarily from: Ohio, Michigan, Tennessee, West Virginia and Kentucky. They were being held at a temporary detainment camp at Vicksburg awaiting release. The captain of the Cincinnati-built Sultana was to receive five dollars per enlisted man and ten dollars per officer for transport north. The Sultana, with a legal capacity of 376 passengers, left Vicksburg carrying about 2,100 souls, three-fourths of whom would not make it home.
When she arrived at Vicksburg, the river vessel was already in trouble with leaky boilers. Since repairs would take several days, the prisoners’ fares would be lost to other boats; the decision was made to continue upriver. The severely overcrowded boat was also contending with flood-stage river levels, putting even more strain on the already compromised boilers. A little more than two days into the journey, disaster struck, just north of Memphis. At about 2:00 AM, April 27, 1865, the ill-fated Sultana’s two boilers exploded one after the other. The force of the explosion threw some passengers into the river, and the boat was consumed by fire. The passengers who weren’t immediately killed by the explosion (and ensuing fire) were in a weakened condition from their prison ordeal, and didn’t have the strength to make it onshore to safety. In all, there were about seven hundred who made it out alive that night, though two hundred of those shortly succumbed to burns in the hospital.
One-time Boone County resident Cpt. Edmond H. Parrish died in the accident, a month after his twenty-second birthday. Parrish was the son and grandson of two of Boone County’s wealthiest land owners, E. H. Parrish, Sr. and Reuben Clarkson, both of whom had property in the southern part of the county. He is buried in Georgetown Cemetery, Scott County, with many family members. His headstone reads “Lost on Steamer Sultana, April 27 1865.” Many of the Kentuckians aboard the Sultana were lost in this tragic accident, as they were positioned closest to the boilers. There may have been more Boone County residents who were aboard.
Though it is considered the greatest maritime disaster in U.S. history, the Sultana tragedy was overshadowed in the news simply due to the timing of the accident. President Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, had been killed just the day before the explosion, dominating the headlines.