Sultana Disaster Museum

The Sultana Disaster Museum first opened in Marion (Crittenden County) in 2015, near the site of the April 27, 1865, Sultana steamboat disaster. The museum aims to educate people around the world about the worst maritime disaster in American history and keep its memory alive through artifact exhibits, multimedia narratives, and a fourteen-foot replica of the Sultana. More broadly, the museum also includes memorabilia related to nineteenth-century steamboat transportation, particularly along the Mississippi River. In November 2022, a groundbreaking was held for a new $10 million facility in Marion, intended to serve as a “hub of a Delta museum trail,” according to organizers, bringing economic stimulus and international attention to northeastern Arkansas. The new facility is expected to open in 2023 and draw 50,000 visitors annually.

The Sultana steamboat disaster at the end of the Civil War caused an estimated loss of up to 1,800 lives. Those aboard the boat were mostly Union soldiers from Midwestern states such as Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana attempting to return home. As prisoners of war, they had been sent to notoriously overcrowded Confederate prisons, and those POWs who survived at war’s end were marched to Vicksburg, Mississippi, for their return north. The Sultana left Vicksburg for Cairo, Illinois, with the Mississippi River at flood stage. On April 27, 1865, at about 2:00 a.m., the Sultana was ten miles upriver from Memphis, Tennessee, when the boilers exploded, blowing the ship apart.

Efforts to commemorate the Sultana disaster began immediately following the vessel’s destruction, organized by victims’ comrades in Tennessee with the goal of offering a “token to the memory” of the lost. Future memorialization through survivors’ reunion associations often featured exhibits and personal mementos from the disaster, intended both to honor the dead and to satisfy curious visitors. Survivors long sought a permanent national memorial to the disaster. Ohio survivors’ efforts in 1907 to erect a large monument in Columbus failed, although others dedicated smaller monuments in Memphis and Knoxville, Tennessee, and elsewhere. The museum in Marion is, however, the first permanent exhibition dedicated to the Sultana disaster, fulfilling a primary ambition of survivors and their descendants.

The brainchild of a coalition made up of the Knoxville-based Association of Sultana Descendants and Friends, Arkansas State University (ASU) professor Louis Intres, Marion city officials, and others, the Sultana Disaster Museum gathers artifacts and memorabilia from descendants of survivors, private collectors, and researchers. Ambitions for the Sultana museum, including the new facility, focus on education and remembrance and have drawn widespread support from various Arkansas dignitaries. Following Representative Vic Snyder’s 2009 congressional resolution recognizing the disaster as a “very significant event in our Nation’s history,” other Arkansas officials began offering political and financial support for the museum, including Senator John Boozman and Governor Asa Hutchinson. Other benefactors have included John and Frank Fogleman, whose ancestors aided in rescuing Sultana survivors, and Gene Salecker, a Chicago, Illinois–based author who became the museum’s historical consultant.

Though Sultana survivors were sharply critical of their treatment by Confederate soldiers and ambivalent about postwar reconciliation with former Confederates, the museum highlights the disaster’s transcendence of the sectional hostility that characterized the Civil War. The museum also educates visitors about the victims’ wartime service and experiences in Confederate prisons. Visitors also learn about the Sultana’s construction, loading, and fateful 1865 voyage, as well as the subsequent military investigation and trial of those responsible. The new museum will house an auditorium, gift shop, and research library.

For additional information:
Barats, Greg. “Sultana: A Legacy for Change.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, October 23, 2022, p. 2H. Online at (accessed May 30, 2023).

Bowden, Bill. “Plans Afoot to Secure More Space to Relate Sultana’s Tragic Story.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, January 3, 2021, pp. 1B, 5B. Online at (accessed May 30, 2023).

———. “State to Kick in Funds for Sultana Museum.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, April 28, 2021, pp. 1B, 3B. Online at (accessed May 30, 2023).

Intres, Louis. “The Sultana Disaster Museum, Marion, Arkansas.” Civil War Navy 6 (Fall 2018): 45–46.

Paige, Eichkorn. “Sultana Museum Set to Build New Center.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, November 12, 2022, pp. 1B, 3B. Online at (accessed May 30, 2023).

Platt, Ainsley. “Sultana Museum to Receive FedEx Gift.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, June 8, 2023, pp. 1B, 3B. Online at (accessed June 8, 2023).

Schnedler, Jack. “Remember the Sultana.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, March 8, 2022, pp. 1E, 6E. Online at (accessed May 30, 2023).

———. “The Sultana Disaster Story Has Outgrown Museum.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, January 19, 2021, pp. 1D, 6D. Online at (accessed May 30, 2023).

Simpson, Stephen. “AG Votes $250,000 for State Museum.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, April 28, 2022, pp. 1B, 3B. Online at (accessed May 30, 2023).

Sultana Association of Descendants and Friends. (accessed May 30, 2023).

Sultana Disaster Museum. (accessed May 30, 2023).

Sutton, Keith. “Remembering the Sultana.” Front Porch (Spring 2021): 8–16.

Elias J. Baker
University of Arkansas at Little Rock


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