During the early morning hours of April 27, 1865, the "Sultana", a Mississippi River steamboat paddlewheeler, which, for two years, ran a regular route between St. Louis and New Orleans, exploded about 7 miles north of Memphis.
An estimated 2,400 to 2,500 people were crowded on board, 1,961 of whom were exchanged Union prisoners of war who had been released from Andersonville and Cahaba prisons. Many were emaciated or in otherwise weakened physical condition. 15 women and children and a crew of 85 men were also among the passengers.
Among the Union prisoners of war were 185 Kentuckians, including two men from the 14th KY Infantry - Privates Elisha Curnutte, Co. G/D and Henry H. Gambill, Co. B.
Elisha and Henry had much in common. Both were born and raised in Lawrence County, Kentucky, 20 years old, unmarried, and still living at home with their parents. Both Elisha and Henry mustered into the 14th KY Infantry at Louisa, KY, on June 10, 1863 and were captured during the Atlanta Campaign within days of each other in August 1864 and sent to Andersonville. After 8 months in captivity, Elisha and Henry were exchanged toward the end of April 1865 at Vicksburg where they awaited transports to take them North and to freedom.
On April 25, 1865, Elisha Curnutte and Henry H. Gambill boarded the already crowded steamboat "Sultana", along with the other Kentuckians who were moved to the second deck and placed around the gangway between the outside wall of the cabin and the paddlewheel boxes.
Soon the "Sultana" left the wharf at Vicksburg and was on the way with its precious load. The following morning the boat was approaching Helena, Arkansas where a photographer took the last known picture of the Sultana, just hours before the explosion.
The voyage continued and after a pleasant ride the "Sultana" reached Memphis. A number of men jumped off the boat and roamed the city until 10 0'clock when it was time to leave again. Soon the "Sultana" pushed off and disappeared into the darkness of the night. The men bedded down and made themselves as comfortable as possible under the crowded circumstances. Henry Gambill and Elisha Curnutte found room at the head of the stairway, in front of the cabin and quickly fell asleep.
Around two o'clock in the morning, the "Sultana" was rocked by a massive explosion which instantly killed Elisha Curnutte. Henry H. Gambill received a severe wound in his left leg but was able to help to cut down and throw overboard a stage plank and got upon it, with twenty-five other comrades. It overturned several times and eventually most of the men drowned, with the exception of Gambill and 4 others. After several hours, the exhausted men were able to reach the roof of an old stable near the Arkansas shore where they remained until sunrise when rescued by a boat. Gambill was taken to the Adams Hospital in Memphis, badly chilled but otherwise in good condition, aside from his leg wound. Three days later he penned a letter to his family in Kentucky, stating, "Dear Mother, it was a scarry looking sight when it was a half mile to [the] other shore and seeing hundreds of men drowning around us."
Henry H. Gambill would never forget what he experienced during that night. He returned home to Eastern Kentucky and in 1867 married Mary Swetnam. The couple settled in the Blaine area where Henry H. Gambill engaged in farming and merchanising. In 1892, Sultana survivor Chester D. Berry published his book, "Loss of the Sultana and Reminiscences of Survivors", which also includes Henry H. Gambill's account of the Sultana tragedy.
Unfortunately, the Sultana disaster was overshadowed by Lincoln's assassination on April 14, and the subsequent capture and death of John Wilkes Booth on April 26, 1865. News of the disaster was not well covered in the newspapers or magazines and with a few exceptions, relegated to the newspaper's back pages and soon forgotten.
The exact death toll of the Sultana explosion is unknown. An estimated 1,300 to 1,900 passengers were killed when three of the ship's four boilers exploded, making it the worst maritime disaster in U. S. history, including the sinking of the Titanic. The official count by the United States Customs Service was 1,547. Modern historians tend to concur on a figure of "up to 1,800".
Memphis National Cemetery is the burial place for many of the victims of the Sultana disaster. Bodies of the victims continued to be found for months downriver, some as far as Vicksburg. Many bodies were never recovered, including Elisha Curnutte's.
Final estimates of survivors were between 700-800 but up to 300 of them died later from the effects of burns or exposure.
An East Tennessee Sultana survivors' group met annually on April 27 until 1928, when four survivors were left.
Monuments and historical markers to the Sultana and its victims have been erected at Memphis, Tennessee; Muncie, Indiana; Marion, Arkansas; Vicksburg, Mississippi; Cincinnati, Ohio; Knoxville, Tennessee; Hillsdale, Michigan; and Mansfield, Ohio. Sadly, Kentucky never saw fit to honor the Sultana victims.
In 1982, a local archaeological expedition uncovered what was believed to be the wreckage of the Sultana. Blackened wooden deck planks and timbers were found about 32 feet under a soybean field on the Arkansas side, about four miles from Memphis. The Mississippi River has changed course several times since the disaster. The main channel now flows about two miles east of its 1865 position.