I received my inspiration for the chapter in Watermark where the steamboat explodes and ultimately sinks by reading the fantastic nonfiction book, The Sultana Tragedy: America’s Greatest Maritime Disaster by Jerry O. Potter. Now, if you’re like me, you probably immediately equate the luxury liner Titanic as the most recognizable and thereby the deadliest maritime disaster, but you’d be wrong. Over 1800 men died on the Sultana—nearly 300 more than did die on the Titanic. The Sultana exploded on the Mississippi River in April 1865, and hardly anyone but the most scholarly of history buffs knows anything about it. And why is that? Because it happened in the same month as the end of the American Civil War and President Lincoln’s assassination. Sadly, it got lost in the headlines.
Sort of brings a lump to your throat to think about all those forgotten dead.
Like a lot of events in history, truth is stranger than fiction. The Sultana was overcrowded with Union soldiers newly released from their miserable internments at Cahaba and Andersonville prisons. The war was over, and they were going home to their families, but one too many temporary patches on a boiler engine resulted in an explosion that killed hundreds and sent hundreds more into the Mississippi River to drown.
The book is gripping and full of personal accounts that will chill your blood and make your heart pound with fear. It’s a survival story, but it’s also a sad testament to human greed and incompetence. The last several pages consist of a somber passenger manifest with asterisks denoting who lived and who died.
The fear that was retold by the Sultana survivors helped me imagine what it might be like for Juno in a similar situation. Although she wasn’t on the steamboat that explodes in Watermark, she’s close enough to get thrown into the Mississippi from the percussion blast. To be swept along downriver while watching the steamboat break apart and burn had to have been terrifying, but even worse, I would imagine, would be having to fight for your life as panicked survivors tried climbing on top of you. Juno experiences something similar, and one can only imagine how desperate such a situation would be.
If you like survival stories, history, and the civil war, The Sultana Tragedy: America’s Greatest Maritime Disaster by Jerry O. Potter, is still available on Amazon by clicking here.