The Worst Maritime Disaster in U.S. History

The Explosion of the Steamer Sultana, 27 Apr 1865.


This is the story of Joseph Henry Collins (1817-1865) and his eldest son James Robert Collins (1844-1919). The bio of Joseph Henry Collins below is reproduced, with permission, in its entirety, from the following Find A Grave website. It is also the story of the Steamer Sultana, the worst maritime disaster in U.S. History which occurred on 27 Apr 1865 – it was greater than even the Titanic!

“Joseph Henry Collins’ origins are as enigmatic as his death was heroic.

Joseph Henry Collins was born around 1817 in North Carolina, exact county unknown. His parents, at least according to this researcher’s standards, are unable to be documented at this time. On 5 December 1843 in Haywood County, NC, Joseph Henry married Sarah Sherrill and over the next 19 years they would have 11 children together, the eldest of whom, James Robert Collins, survived his father in the Sultana disaster.

By 1850 Joseph Henry Collins and his family moved west to Cherokee County, NC, which sits adjacent to the eastern border of Tennessee and by 1860, a year before the Civil War began, they were living in Bradley County, Tennessee. Some of the children of Joseph Henry Collins and Sarah Sherrill stayed in Tennessee, others moved and resettled in surrounding states; for example, middle son Benjamin Franklin Collins (my ancestor) moved just north to adjoining Meigs County, Tennessee and then on to Texas.

On 29 July 1863, at the age of 45, Joseph Henry Collins enlisted with the Tennessee Third Regiment Cavalry, Company G. According to military records, he was captured in action on 25 September 1864 and subsequently placed in the infamous Cahaba Prison in Alabama where he remained for approximately six months until 18 March 1865. It is at this point that Joseph Henry Collins’ story connects with that of the steamer Sultana, the worst maritime disaster in U.S. history.

The names JH Collins and JR Collins both appear on the Sultana Memorial located in Knoxville, Tennessee. “JH Collins” being Joseph Henry Collins and “JR Collins” being his eldest son James Robert Collins who survived his father in this tragic disaster. Books, websites, and memorials surrounding this event have been created in an effort to render comprehensible events and decisions that in hindsight seem nearly incomprehensible, if not reprehensible. I have found that the words most apt to describe the egregious events of the Sultana disaster and the death of Joseph Henry Collins to be none other than the words of his son James Robert Collins who wrote an article that appeared in the Plainville Times [Kansas] on 28 May 1908 detailing his first-hand account of the war inclusive of the Sultana disaster entitled “Civil War Reminiscence.” This posthumous account of the last hours of Joseph Henry Collins is an appropriate epitaph for his courageous and heroic life. A copy of this article appears on the memorial page of James Robert Collins:

I have read, and recommend, the following books below on the subject of the Sultana disaster, from which some facts might help to elucidate the scale of this tragedy.

Author Alan Huffman states: “The Sultana was licensed to carry three hundred seventy-six passengers and already had about one hundred eighty private passengers and crew on board, all of whom no doubt watched in dismay as more than two thousand additional passengers – the paroled prisoners, their Union Army guards, a few Rebel soldiers headed home, and members of the US Sanitary Commission – snaked from the gangplank along the waterfront” (Huffman 2010: 176).

Author Jerry Potter highlights the fact that the Sultana tragedy was quantitatively worse than the legendary Titanic: “The boat involved in this prior disaster [27 years before the Titanic] was a 260-foot wooden-hulled steamboat, small in comparison to the gigantic Titanic. At 2:00 A.M. on April 27, 1865, the steamer Sultana exploded on the Mississippi River near Memphis, Tennessee. The incredible fact of this disaster is that at the time of the explosion, the Sultana carried more passengers than were aboard the Titanic. The Titanic had 2,227 passengers; the Sultana, over 2,400. This number was more than six times the Sultana’s legal carrying capacity of 376. As a result, more lives were lost on the Sultana than were lost on the Titanic. The number of deaths on the Titanic totaled 1,522 as compared to approximately 1,800 on the Sultana. The Sultana disaster still stands as the worst marine tragedy in American history and one of the worst in world history” (Potter 1992: ix-x).

Potter, Jerry O. 1992. The Sultana Tragedy: America’s Greatest Maritime Disaster. Gretna: Pelican Publishing.

Huffman, Alan. 2010. Sultana: Surviving the Civil War, Prison, and the Worst Maritime Disaster in American History. New York: Harper Collins.

To read the FULL article written by James Robert Collins entitled “Civil War Reminiscence” which is a first-hand account of the Civil War and the sinking of the Steamer Sultana (published in the Plainville Times, Kansas, on 28 May, 1908), follow the link below.

steamer sultana maritime disaster
Ill-fated “Sultana”, Helena, Arkansas, just prior to its explosion on April 27, 1865

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