Lessons From History: The Sinking of the Sultana
Good results only come from good work.

On April 27, 1865, over 1,700 people died on the Mississippi River as the steamboat Sultana exploded, burned and sunk. It was the worst maritime disasters in all U.S. history, but it never received proper recognition because of all of the activity going on around the same time.

April had been a busy month. The Civil War was coming to an end. General Robert E. Lee and his Confederate armies had surrendered, Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated, and John Wilkes Booth, his assassin, had been caught and killed. The newspapers were flooded with information about these events, relegating the sinking of the Sultana to a back page story written in small print. This tragedy can teach us an important lesson about doing things right.

The Sultana’s job was to return Union soldiers who had been prisoners during the war to their homes in the North. They were traveling from Mississippi to Illinois. The boat was built with state-of-the-art technology, and it had many modern safety features that should have averted any crisis. The big problem was that the boat was carrying too many passengers. It was built to carry only 376 people. They loaded the steamboat with 2,300 Union soldiers—over six times the maximum capacity.

Just as the Sultana was about to launch out of the port in Vicksburg, Mississippi, one of the four boilers began to leak. A proper repair would take between three and four days, but the captain did not want to wait that long. The government in the North had offered to pay $5 per returned soldier, and both the captain and the army officials who would share in the money were eager to get to Illinois and claim their prize. Thus, the captain ordered the bulging boiler to be patched instead of replaced. After only a day of repairs, the Sultana launched from Vicksburg and began to chug its way up the Mississippi River.

The first two days of the Sultana’s travel up the Mississippi River went fairly smoothly. The river was flooding at the time, and the strong currents made it difficult for the overloaded steamboat to trudge its way toward its destination, but there were no major technical difficulties with the boilers. On the night of 26th, the Sultana stopped at Memphis to pick up coal.

It continued on its trek at midnight, but traveled only seven miles before everything blew up—literally. The patched boiler exploded under the pressure of a hasty repair, causing a chain reaction that led to two of the other three boilers exploding as well. The decks above the boilers collapsed, and fire began to consume everything. The force from the explosion itself was so strong that many were thrown into the water and died on impact. The rest jumped into the water, but many of them drowned. The lucky ones clung to pieces of driftwood and waited to be rescued. As the night began to turn to dawn, the Sultana sunk completely; it remains at the bottom of the Mississippi River to this day.

Because of a careless decision to not properly repair the steamboat, more people died with the sinking of the Sultana than died when the Titanic sunk nearly 50 years later. If the captain had made the right decision and taken the time to properly repair the boiler, he could have saved 1,700 lives.

While it’s probable that none of us will ever have 2,300 people depending on us for survival, we still need to make sure that we are careful in the decisions we make and thorough in the actions we take. Ecclesiastes 9:10 says, “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, or wisdom, in the grave, wither thou goest.” Every job we tackle needs to be done to the best of our ability. We need to produce the highest quality possible. We need to do things right.

Rushing through our assignments and responsibilities will only result in sloppy or unfinished work. When we do our chores at home or our homework for class, we should strive do it right the first time so that we don’t have to go back and re-do it. We should complete our homework assignments as if God is going to be the one grading them, as Colossians 3:23 brings out—“And whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as to the Lord, and not unto men.”

Going the easy way will rarely give you the result you want. You cannot skimp on being detailed in your work and expect a grand outcome. The captain of the Sultana wanted the easy way out. He wanted to repair the boiler quickly so that he could get the steamboat to its destination on time and claim his money. He did not do his job properly, however, and it ended up exploding in his face—literally.

Good results only come from good work, and God wants us to have good results. He wants us to do everything to the best of our ability so that He can bless us. This may seem difficult, but “with God, all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26). With His help, we can strive to become better at doing things right, we can save ourselves from all kinds of personal disasters, and we can be blessed for living the right way!