Following the worst maritime disaster on April 27, 1865 when the Sultana sank killing over 1,700 Union soldiers enroute back home after being released from Confederate prisons, Major General Cadwallander C. Washburn was charged with commanding the investigating commission. Along with Lt. Colonel Thomas M. Brown (7th Indiana Cavalry), Captain A.R. Eddy (assistant quartermaster) and Major R. G. Rombauer (1st Illinois Light Artillery), the Union officers were charged with hearing testimony and determine cause and blame for the tragedy.
Because of his chairmanship, the investigative body became known as the Washburn Commission. The Washburn Commission started hearing testimony on April 27. The ship’s pilot, George Kayton, testified that even though the ship was overcrowded, it was not overloaded. He also said there were 76 life preservers for the estimated between 2,100 to 2,300 passengers.
Boiler repairman R. G. Taylor, who repaired the vessel’s leaking boilers at Vicksburg contended that his repairs were only temporary, and that much more work was needed on the boilers.
Others testified during the hearing on various matters, including charging that ship Captain Frederic Speed wanted all the soldiers on board his vessel (the Sultana) instead of splitting them with the Pauline Carroll because he was getting paid handsomely for each prisoner he carried on board.
The Washburn Commission found as follows: that the repairs made on the boiler at Vicksburg were inadequate those in charge should have been aware of the danger of the situation; while the number of men on board did not particularly cause a danger, there was no necessity to lace all the men on one boat when another was nearby; and that an insufficient amount of water in the boilers probably caused the ensuing explosion.
Captain Speed faced a military court martial for his actions in the Sultana disaster. His trial began on January 9, 1866 with charges of “neglect of duty to the prejudice of good order and military discipline” and specifically that he “did neglect to avail himself of the services of” and “did himself assume to discharge the duties” of officers Captain Kerns and Colonel Hatch.
Six months later the court found him guilty of all three counts and ordered him to be dishonorably discharged from service. Brigadier General Joseph Holt, the judge advocate general of the U.S. Army reviewed the findings of the court and reversed them. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton confirmed Judge Holt’s reversal. Speed was honorably mustered out of service, with all of the record and charges against him expunged from his record.
The Sultana had no insurance for fire or boiler explosions.
Attempts have been made to compare the sinking of the Sultana to the sinking of the much more highly publicized sinking of the Titanic. But the Titanic’s death toll was less. One newspaper compared them thusly— “The Titanic represented the wealth and pride of the world and carried in its passenger list people of great wealth who were enjoying the voyage as a pleasure trip. On the other hand, the Sultana was loaded down with Union soldiers who had been confined in Andersonville and Cahaba Prisons. Weakened and exhausted from their imprisonment and lack of proper food and shelter, they were enroute home at the close of the war.”
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