Electronic Theses and Dissertations

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Ph.D. in History

First Advisor

April Holm

Second Advisor

Paul J. Polgar

Third Advisor

Susan Gaunt Stearns

Relational Format



This project examines the historical memory of the Sultana steamboat disaster of April 27, 1865. The Sultana, ferrying recently-released federal prisoners, exploded north of Memphis, killing over 1,700 in the nation’s worst maritime disaster. Contemporaries interpreted the disaster through a variety of lenses, finding evidence of recalcitrant rebels, the heroism of Union soldiers, and critiques of Republican emancipationist wartime policy. Steamboat safety advocates deployed the disaster’s memory to successfully press Radical Republicans for the 1871 Steamboat Act, establishing the nation’s first maritime safety code. The disaster’s survivors gathered at reunions and published personal narratives to secure the Sultana, and the victims’ suffering, in popular memory and official war histories. Despite these efforts, most Americans remained ambivalent about the disaster. Familiar and fascinated with antebellum steamboat explosions, most Americans accepted the Sultana as an unfortunate but inevitable consequence of steam transportation. The 1871 Steamboat Act failed to reduce accidents, as investigators hesitated to assign blame and travelers assumed the risk of disaster. Sultana survivors, though successful in attracting large crowds eager to hear their stories, saw their efforts to memorialize and historicize the disaster frustrated as the American public largely forgot the disaster. This project argues that this forgottenness is the defining feature of the Sultana disaster’s memory. This memory, grounded in a sense of injustice for the victims, finds its meaning in being forgotten in American popular history and memory of the Civil War. The project thus demonstrates the central role played by forgetting in the creation and evolution of historical memory.

Available for download on Thursday, December 14, 2023