Segments in this Video

Civil War Sabotage: Introduction (02:02)


On April 27, 1865, the Bostonia II witnesses a burning ship in the distance. Listen to J. Walter Elliott's account of the Sultana; 1,800 people died while the ship burned. Theories include Confederate sabotage, Union corruption, and a shoddy boiler repair. (Credits)

Sultana Mystery (03:17)

On April 27th, a fire breaks out on the U.S.S. Sultana; it departed Vicksburg three days earlier. The History Detectives decide to visit the Sultana Survivor Organization, search for forensic evidence at its last location, and look for clues in historical archives. Tukufu Zuberi and Wes Cowan speak to descendants of passengers and discover one passenger compiled and printed accounts.

"Loss of the Sultana" (02:00)

Listen to accounts from Robert M. Hamilton, W.A. Huld, J. Walter Elliott, Hiram Allison, and Simeon D. Chelf. Some allude to a massive explosion; descendants theorize what caused the fire. Amateur historians Gene Salecker and Jerry Potter reconstruct the night's events.

Confederate Spy Theory (02:00)

Samuel H. Raudebaugh theorizes that a relation of Jefferson Davis hid a torpedo in the coal. The Sultana stopped in Hopefield, Arkansas at a coal barge; historians argue the merits of the conspiracy theory. Passengers cling to life in the icy Mississippi River.

Cause of the Explosion (02:43)

The government assigned three commissions to investigate the disaster. Cowan decides to travel to the National Archives while Zuberi wants to investigate the wreckage. R.J. Taylor testified to the Washburn Commission that the crew discovered a crack in one of the boilers.

Overloading the Sultana? (03:18)

Stephen James believes the Sultana lies underneath a soybean field; he hopes to detect metal using a magnetometer. Cowan recalls how survivors testified that the hurricane deck sagged under the weight. While the inspector granted access to 375 passengers, experts believe there could have been as many as 2,400 on the steamboat.

Preventable Explosion (04:12)

Rueben Hatch allowed two other steamboats heading north to leave without passengers. William Kerns implored the quartermaster to put 600-800 passengers on the Pauline Carroll. Cowen calls Kaiama Glover to investigate Hatch. James uses a drone to take an arial photograph of the soybean field; Zuberi discovers a hull spike.

Investigating Hatch (02:52)

Glover discovers Hatch committed fraud in Cairo, but managed to avoid a conviction. Steamboat operators were paid by the number of soldiers they shuttled home. The Army Competency Review Board declared Hatch a deficient officer; Cowan suspects someone is protecting him.

Louisville, Kentucky Steamboat (02:57)

Cowan interviews the captain and chief engineer to discover if the shoddily repaired boiler could have caused the explosion. Mark Doty explains a top heavy ship would have rolled from side-to-side; engines needed to burn hotter to head upriver.

Locating the U.S.S. Sultana (02:55)

James reviews the evidence that the Sultana's hull and boilers lay beneath the field. A major excavation would be required to determine the cause of the explosion. Zuberi investigates whether a local newspaper reported Confederate sabotage.

Investigating Confederate Sabotage (04:40)

In a report delivered on April 25th, the writer comments that a number of men were employed by the Confederates to raze Union property. "Boat burners" destroyed over 60 steamboats during the Civil War. Cowan interviews Joseph Thatcher, a descendant of Thomas Courtenay who invented the coal torpedo.

Boat Burner Lead (03:55)

Zuberi meets D. H. Rule; a military tribunal scheduled Robert Louden to be hanged for destroying the Steamboat Ruth. The saboteur confessed to William Streeter that he blew up the Sultana. Cowan and Zuberi argue over whether the interview is credible.

Mechanical Engineer Interview (04:20)

Larry Lee explains that evidence of a patch on a boiler is inconclusive. A coal torpedo would have sunk the boat immediately, but there was no hole in the bottom of the hull. Cowan believes that the rocking of the boat caused the explosion.

Returning to Hatch (04:48)

Ozias Hatch wrote to Abraham Lincoln intervening on behalf of his brother. The court-martial procedures ended because the president wrote a moving letter to the head of the committee. Two weeks before the Sultana arrives in Vicksburg, Lincoln wrote a letter recommending Hatch be promoted to colonel.

Was Lincoln to Blame? (03:22)

During the Civil War, 750,000 people died. Harold Holzer explains how President Lincoln felt pressure to be re-elected in 1864 and wanted to keep his friends close. The president would have regretted his decision to give moral support to Hatch.

Sabotage Conclusion (04:43)

Holzer explains that the Sultana disaster implicated Lincoln. The last survivor of the explosion died in 1937. The History Detectives take the descendants to the soybean field where the steamboat rests.

Credits: Episode 1: Civil War Sabotage? (00:30)

Credits: Episode 1: Civil War Sabotage?

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Episode 1: Civil War Sabotage?

Part of the Series : History Detectives: Special Investigations
3-Year Streaming Price: $169.95



It was one of the worst maritime naval disasters in U.S. history. Officially, the death toll was 1,500. Unofficially, the count may have been far higher. When it mysteriously exploded on April 27, 1865, the Mississippi steamboat USS Sultana was packed with Union soldiers. The war had ended that month; at every stop more and more men clamored to board the homeward-bound ship, which blew up mid-river. However, the story of the sinking quickly vanished from the papers. What really sank the Sultana? Was it Confederate sabotage? Securing the original investigative report and its archives allows the team to forensically examine and scientifically test theories of the boilers’ failure. The team also researches the stories of a Confederate agent and spy who burned Union ships on the Mississippi and was an expert in using “coal torpedoes” and a former Union inspector’s deathbed revelation.

Length: 55 minutes

Item#: BVL131279

Copyright date: ©2015

Closed Captioned

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