Sabotage of the Sultana...

The scenario of how the sabotage of the Sultana may have played out:

This is a speculative view of how the events of the night of April 26, 1865 in Memphis may have taken place from Robert Louden's perspective. Louden had numerous contacts in Memphis—the city had been a major smuggling hub for Louden, Grimes, and a number of other Confederate agents. Moving in and around Memphis was an easy matter for Louden, and nearby, able to offer support, was his brother-in-law, Arthur C. McCoy, with a band of men assigned to keep watch on the river and do what damage they could.


It was a spring evening in April of 1865 when the steamboat Sultana arrived at the Memphis levee. The boat drew attention for the swarms of people covering her decks. Over two thousand were aboard a boat meant to hold no more than three-hundred fifty. As many men as could went ashore. Many couldn’t, so bad of shape were they in, little more than walking skeletons. Most of the thousands on the Sultana were Union soldiers, returning from prison camps in the South. The boat’s owner was getting paid by the head and paid little attention to the dangers of so overloading the boat. The soldiers, themselves, were so eager to get home, they were willing to overlook it as long as the boat stayed afloat.

One of the people who took note of the Union soldiers on the Sultana looked on with cool calculation tinged with a certain amount of bitterness. These Union soldiers were going home and he wasn’t. Robert Louden couldn’t go home. Maybe ever. He had no sympathy for prisoners of war. He’d spent over a year in a Union prison; had a brother who was still a prisoner. His father had been imprisoned by Union officials. So had his wife, arrested and taken away from their young children. Louden had sworn revenge and he would have it.

For the Union soldiers, the war was over. Lee had surrendered. For Louden, the war was far from over. He was part of the Department of the Trans-Mississippi and they fought on.

Toward midnight, the Sultana crossed the river to the Arkansas side. At the coaling station she took on fuel. In the darkness and confusion of men no one noticed an extra worker carrying coal on board.

Robert Louden knew steamboats. And he knew how to destroy them.

Among the other workers, Louden carried aboard a lump of coal, indistinguishable from the other lumps of coal being loaded. Louden’s wasn’t coal, though. It was cast iron in the shape of coal, coated with coal dust. The inside was hollow and packed with ten pounds of explosives. This was the invention of a Confederate agent named Thomas Courtenay. Louden knew him; had known him for years. The bomb was called a Courtenay Torpedo.

Louden placed his torpedo in the coal bin, placing it where he knew it would be used in a few hours. Then he slipped away into the night.

The Sultana left the coaling station, heading north. The crowds of men struggled to find a place to sleep. Some got lucky and were able to get a warm place near the boilers. The boat was running smoothly on the flooded river. The engineer checked the boilers. They were running well.

Two a. m. A shovelful of coal carried the torpedo into the furnace.

An explosion shattered the night. Iron shrapnel from the torpedo tore into the boilers, bursting them. Flaming coals were scattered across the wooden decks, setting them on fire. Men were flung into the icy river. Others burned or were crushed by collapsing decks. Women and children, passengers in the boat’s cabins, struggled for cork life vests. The Sultana burned to the water’s edge.

--D. H. Rule 



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©2001 D. H. Rule

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