Gene Eric Salecker. Destruction of the Steamboat Sultana: The Worst Maritime Disaster in American History. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2022.
by Kyle Johnson
The steamboat was an important fixture in mid-to-late 19th century America. Steamboats facilitated trade in goods, people, and ideas; shaping the daily lives of those who used them. On occasion, these ships faced disaster on the water. Gene Eric Salecker takes a closer look at one such case in his book Destruction of the Steamboat Sultana: The Worst Maritime Disaster in American History.
In this book, Salecker attempts to tell the definitive history of the Sultana disaster, from the ship’s inception until its eventual demise. He analyzes the construction of the ship, the crew that were recruited, the many roles the ship played, the events that occurred during the ship’s final journeys, and the passengers who were aboard during the explosion (especially the former prisoners of war, who were being transported back to the North). His rich descriptions of the Sultana’s history paint a clear image of the ship and its destruction.
Salecker incorporates a wide range of sources, including first-hand accounts from survivors, newspaper articles, and court records to tell this narrative. In his own words, Salecker attempts to “let those involved – the paroled prisoners, civilian passengers, guards, crew members, rescuers, and eyewitnesses – tell their stories in their own words” (p. x). This methodology highlights the layered meanings of the Sultana and the devastation of the disaster itself. The captains of the ship, particularly Captain Speed, prioritized the wealth and glory that the Sultana could provide. To the paroled prisoners of war, the ship represented freedom, escape from incarceration, and passage back to their homes and families. These differing representations show the complexity of the ship and the dynamic nature of steamships during this period.
His approach teeters on microhistory but Salecker’s focus quickly shifts from the experiences of the ship and disaster to the aftermath for the ship’s captains. During these chapters, Salecker is more concerned with which officers were most responsible for the explosion and how Captain Speed attempted to evade legal trouble, shifting most of the blame to the two other captains, Williams and Hatch. While this does highlight the corruption of steamboat captains in this period, it is less effective in illustrating the socio-cultural importance of steamboats. Instead, these sections lean more towards political history and comprise a straightforward account of the legal aftermath of the Sultana explosion.
Along with this methodology, Salecker largely avoids discussing historiography in the books. He briefly alludes to prior works on the Sultana without mentioning specific authors. Instead, Salecker focuses on the myths and legends largely perpetuated through public channels, such as newspapers and later apocryphal retellings of the disaster. This makes the book more accessible to a public audience and leads to a more descriptive approach. Unfortunately, it also results in the book skirting questions and topics that other historians of 19th-century American steamboats have engaged with in recent years. Notably absent is any detailed discussion of race or slavery. Despite including some quotes which reference race, Salecker himself steers clear of the topic, leaving many questions on the table. How did those on the ship see race? How may that have affected their approach to shipping and the disaster? Coming out of the Civil War, these questions about race and the ship are significant and deserved answers.
In the penultimate chapter, Salecker surveys how survivors and communities have remembered and memorialized the Sultana in the years after the disaster. This chapter again emphasizes the importance of the Sultana to those who it affected. It shaped how survivors viewed themselves and their society and became a permanent part of the communities the explosion touched. While Salecker uses the final chapter to dispel speculation that the explosion was a result of sabotage, he returns at the very end to the survivors and victims of the disaster. His concluding sentiments again demonstrate the meaning of the Sultana disaster to its victims, as they see their strength, perseverance, and longing for peace and home reflected in the tragic destruction of the steamboat.
Gene Eric Salecker’s Destruction of the Steamboat Sultana: The Worst Maritime Disaster in American History provides an insightful window into the Sultana disaster. Salecker shows the many meanings of the ship to varying groups of people. When possible, he does so through the eyes and words of those who experienced it themselves. In its totality, the book provides a comprehensive history of the explosion and its aftermath. However, Salecker avoids some of the deeper historical and historiographical questions that his book and other scholarly works have raised. Despite that, Destruction of the Steamboat Sultana is a comprehensive study of the ship’s lifespan and untimely end.