Before I wrote LIKE A RIVER, I did a great deal of research about the steamboat Sultana. This boat carried released Prisoners of War after the US Civil War, Union soldiers released from Confederate prisons in Alabama and Georgia.
The boat, built to carry 376 passengers and a crew of 85, was overloaded with about 2500. When it exploded just north of Memphis, it killed more people than died on the Titanic.
Because this happened just after the war had ended and Lincoln had been assassinated, many people believed that the boat had been sabotaged by Confederate sympathizers. No evidence of sabotage was ever found.
But people love a good conspiracy theory.
I recently read a fiction novel that creates a fictional story involving a sabotage version of the Sultana disaster. It tells a conspiracy tale. But it’s fiction. Evidence shows that overloading the boat was what caused the boilers to explode.
I understand that people want a story to be more exciting, and often a conspiracy provides that excitement. But the Sultana disaster was a tragedy in so many ways—without benefit of sabotage thrown in.
Think about it. The men aboard the Sultana had been through the horror of a bloody war and survived it, only to be captured and put in a prison camp. If that prison was Camp Sumter at Andersonville (and for many it was), the horror had just begun. In its 13-month existence, between 13,000 and 15,000 prisoners at Andersonville died of starvation, polluted water, disease, being shot by guards or hanged by fellow prisoners.
Those who survived all that inhumanity were loaded onto a boat to take them home. Finally! They could breathe a bit easier. They were on their way home!
But nearly 1,800 died when the Sultana exploded, many ending up in a watery grave at the bottom of the Mississippi. A horrible tragedy, no matter what caused the boilers to explode.
I don’t think the story needs a conspiracy theory, do you?