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Review: ‘Sultana’ revisits a little-known American disaster

March 14, 2022 GMT
This cover image released by Naval Institute Press shows "Destruction of the Steamboat Sultana: The Worst Maritime Disaster in American History" by Gene Eric Salecker. (Naval Institute Press via AP)
This cover image released by Naval Institute Press shows "Destruction of the Steamboat Sultana: The Worst Maritime Disaster in American History" by Gene Eric Salecker. (Naval Institute Press via AP)
This cover image released by Naval Institute Press shows "Destruction of the Steamboat Sultana: The Worst Maritime Disaster in American History" by Gene Eric Salecker. (Naval Institute Press via AP)
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This cover image released by Naval Institute Press shows "Destruction of the Steamboat Sultana: The Worst Maritime Disaster in American History" by Gene Eric Salecker. (Naval Institute Press via AP)
1 of 2
This cover image released by Naval Institute Press shows "Destruction of the Steamboat Sultana: The Worst Maritime Disaster in American History" by Gene Eric Salecker. (Naval Institute Press via AP)

“Destruction of the Steamboat Sultana” by Gene Eric Salecker (Naval Institute Press)

Nearly 1,200 people perished when the steamship Sultana exploded and burned in the early morning hours of April 27, 1865, in the Mississippi River. It’s the worst maritime disaster in United States history, yet it’s not as well known as other doomed ships such as the Titanic or the Lusitania.

In “Destruction of the Steamboat Sultana,” Gene Eric Salecker offers a comprehensive and at times compelling account of the disaster. The book is the second written on the Sultana by Salecker, a retired police officer and teacher who is a consultant for the Sultana Disaster Museum in Marion, Arkansas.

The Sultana’s sinking occurred in one of the most momentous months in the nation’s history, just days after President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination and the end of the Civil War.

Most of the passengers on the overcrowded ship were Union soldiers who had been held as prisoners of war, finally on their way home after being in captivity.

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Not surprisingly, the most gripping sections of Salecker’s book are descriptions of the ship’s destruction and its aftermath. Salecker deftly lets the accounts of the survivors, rescuers and witnesses speak for themselves. These accounts leave readers with haunting images that will stay with them.

Though not as dramatic as the descriptions of the disaster itself, Salecker’s book also takes a detailed look at the mechanical causes as well as the human factors that contributed to so many perishing. He further debunks already disproven yet persistent conspiracy theories that the explosion was caused by Confederate saboteurs.

The book is a must-read for Civil War buffs and those wanting to learn new details about the Sultana. Though it’s a challenging read at times for those not familiar with the event, Salecker’s account is a solid introduction to an oft-overlooked piece of history.