Destruction of the Steamboat Sultana: The Worst Maritime Disaster in American History
Gene Eric Salecker
“Definitive” is a fraught accolade, but an accurate one for Gene Salecker’s account of the 1865 destruction of the packet steamboat Sultana and the aftermath. Neither maritime historian nor ship modeler, the author brings his perspective of middle-school teacher and former police officer. The secondary record is finally corrected and complemented with long-overlooked primary source material. Justice is obtained for the victims of this horrific event by shining a bright light on the dark behaviors of a handful of dishonorable and self-aggrandizing persons in positions of authority. The depth and breadth of Salecker’s examination, born of his determination to get the story right and honor the memories of the dead, maimed, and haunted is exemplary. The stunning list of period newspapers he located and studied is just one indication.
Steamboat travel on the Western Rivers was unforgiving of incompetence and inattention, and further threatened by the immaturity of the science of iron metallurgy, and the still-evolving designs of steam boilers. That form of propulsion was by then over one-hundred-years in use. But even with the U.S. Steamboat Inspection Service in its second iteration, the safety record remained appalling. All these factors contributing to the devastating loss are explained in Salecker’s story.
This book is not about Sultana as a potential modeling subject. There are only two photographic images known of the steamboat, both included. No original design plans exist, and likely none were ever drawn. To use this book as supplement to the one available set of drawings for model builders requires extraction of details about Sultana from the narrative. A detailed multi-sheet set of plans for model builders were drawn many years ago by David Meagher and were available directly from the artist (2009) and from the Abe Taubman Ships Plans catalogue now owned by Loyalhanna Dockyard https://www.taubmansonline.com/
There are photographs of three steamboats, portraits of those aboard whose stories are recounted in the narrative, and of Union Army officers associated with the hiring of Sultana and the transportation of paroled prisoners for repatriation.
The book is both a vivid and sensitive accounting and a highly valuable reference. However, the dozens of notes per chapter are infrequently annotated making them useful only as encountered by the thorough reader. For others, we are left with the index. The two maps are of little utility as they are not keyed to events or places.
Serving as a ready guide to content of interest, the data about major themes in the account might have been more beneficially presented in a graphic or tabular form as appendices or embedded illustrations by chapter. Some topical examples: transported units of the Union Army; Officers responsible for transportation, logistics, accounting for musters of paroled prisoners; participants in the investigation and trial; riverine communities assisting and their hospitals; the track of Sultana—both south toward New Orleans, and north to the fatal explosion and thereafter; lists of those whose individual accounts are included.
Clearly the author had to compile this data to write the book, making it relatively easy to present in graphic or tabular form. Production costs may have prohibited inclusion.
It is unlikely another author will attempt to best Salecker, but perhaps a second edition with the foregoing aids to navigation could be considered.
- Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2022
- 6-1/4” x 9-1/4”, hardcover, x + 497 pages
- Photographs, maps, notes, bibliography, index. $39.95
- ISBN: 9781682477434
Reviewed by: Randle M. Biddle, Star, Idaho