On May 26, 1865, Captain J. C. Mason pushed off from a dock in Vicksburg, Miss., and steered the steam-powered paddle wheeler SS Sultana north along the rain-swollen Mississippi River. The Sultana’s decks groaned from the weight of more than 2,500 passengers and crew members.
At 2 a.m. the following morning, the ship’s boilers exploded north of Memphis. As many as 1,800 people died in the explosion and fire or drowned in the fast flowing river. The majority of the dead were Union soldiers recently released from a pair of hellish Confederate prison camps. Their ticket home had become a death warrant.