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Lancaster native survived the sinking of the Sultana


Library of Congress
T. W. Bankes’ grainy photo of the ill-fated, badly overcrowded Sultana taken April 26, 1864, at Helena, Arkansas, on her final journey. Most of the men seen in this image would perish within a few hours. (Library of Congress)

The sinking of the privately-owned riverboat Sultana near the end of the Civil War on April 27, 1865, remains the single largest loss of life in U.S. maritime history. More than 1,700 people, many of them recently released prisoners of war on their way home, perished when three of her four steam boilers exploded and the badly overcrowded stern-wheeler caught on fire on the Mississippi River some seven miles north of Memphis, Tennessee.

The John Litherbury Boatyard in Cincinnati, Ohio, constructed the 1,719-ton  Sultana in 1863 to serve the lower Mississippi cotton trade. Normally carrying a crew of about 85 men, she uneventfully plied the waters for two years between St. Louis and New Orleans.

The U.S. army frequently paid her owners to carry troops on board. However, Sultana had never carried as many passengers as she did on her fateful final voyage when because of a combination of corruption, greed, and availability, she carried 2,400 people. That was well above her rated capacity of 376 passengers plus cargo.

One of those soldiers who crowded aboard was Lt. Jacob N. Schaffer, a native of Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Harper's Weekly sketch of Sultana burning on the Mississippi River
Sketch of Sultana burning on the Mississippi River. (Harper’s Weekly)

Schaffer, born in Lancaster on December 5, 1833, had moved to northeastern Ohio before the Civil War. He enlisted at Camp Massillon near Canton in early September 1862 in Company F, 115th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, under the command of Colonel Jackson A. Lucy. After training, the regiment was split and sent to various posts for guard duty. Eventually, most of the men ended up near Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and later served in the Army of the Cumberland guarding Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad bridges in a series of wooden blockhouses. Schaffer was promoted from first sergeant to lieutenant in September 1864.

On December 4, 1864, the day before his birthday, Lieutenant Schaffer was one of several hundred men captured near Nashville when a series of blockhouses protecting a nearby railroad fell to Confederates under famed General Nathan Bedford Forrest. He and his company of 30 men had held out in Blockhouse #1 for three days against overwhelming odds before capitulating.

Over the next few months, Schaffer was held variously in prison camps near Meridian, Mississippi; Andersonville, Georgia; and Castle Morgan near Cahaba, Alabama. At the end of the war, he and the rest of the men held at Cahaba marched to Vicksburg, Mississippi, where they and other former prisoners crowded aboard Sultana. The soldiers were primarily from the states of Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, and West Virginia.

A local army quartermaster,  Lt. Col. Reuben Hatch, paid J. Cass Mason, the captain/part owner of the steamship, to take on far more prisoners than practical, despite there being a few other northbound riverboats docked in Vicksburg that could have taken their share. The going rate was $5 per infantryman and $10 per officer, although some accounts suggest Mason received less per man, but took on far more men than normal to make a higher net profit.

One of the ship’s boilers had sprung a leak at a seam. When Mason learned from a local boilermaker that a complete repair would delay him by at least an extra day or so, he decided on a temporary patch that should have sufficed had the ship not been so badly overcrowded and not fighting a swift current in flooded conditions.

Sultana memorial, Mount Olive Baptist Cemetery, Knoxville, Tennessee
Detail from the Sultana memorial, Mount Olive Baptist Cemetery, Knoxville, Tennessee. (Scott Mingus photo)

So many men had crowded on board that heavy timbers had to be employed to prop up the sagging decks. In addition to the soldiers, the riverboat carried a regular complement of crewmen, several dozen paid passengers including women and children, scores of horses and mules, and cargo consisting largely of hogsheads of sugar.

For two days, the packet steamed upriver against the strong current, pausing at Helena on April 26 where T. W. Bankes took his now iconic final image of the doomed boat. It reached Memphis at 7 p.m. that evening. There, the sugar was unloaded and a few men took the opportunity to stroll the streets of the riverfront city. Once Sultana was ready to depart, it steamed across the river to the Arkansas side and took on coal. As night deepened, most of the men tried to sleep, despite having little room to stretch out.

About 2 p.m., one of the boilers exploded, quickly followed in succession by two others. Untold numbers of passengers died in the explosion. Others perished or were badly scalded by the hot water thrown from the boilers. Still others drowned in the river or were burned to death when the ship caught fire and burned to the waterline. Captain Mason died in the disaster, as did most of his officers and crewmen.

It was a lurid, sickening sight.

Illuminated by the fiery hulk of the doomed Sultana, hundreds of passengers struggled in the icy, rain-swollen river to locate and hang on to floating debris. At times, large groups clinging together disappeared under the water together, never to rise again. Several women and children drowned, as well as most of the former prisoners of war who had went to sleep that night believing they were one night closer to home. Now, prayers, screams, and curses filled the night air near a group of islands known locally as “The Hen and Chickens.” Some worried about a nine-foot live alligator that had been on board as part of the cargo.

Jacob Shaffer was among those passengers who survived the long, terrifying night. Some men clung to trees above the flooded islands or along the shore. Others washed downriver with the current. Citizens, including former Confederate soldiers, living along the shore came out with boats or otherwise helped in the rescue operations. Boats steamed or rowed north from Memphis to pick up survivors well into the next morning. The fortunate Shaffer floated downstream on a door and was picked up by some U.S. Colored Troops who were assisting the rescue operations.

Some 200 of the people rescued later died from burns, scalds, or other injuries. Shaffer and other soldiers once they were able were taken to Cairo, Illinois, on other vessels. He mustered out of the service in June and returned to Canton. Most of his men from Company F had perished in the Sultana tragedy.

Once home, Shaffer settled back into civilian life and resumed tailoring. He and his wife Barbara Harding Shaffer (a cousin of future President Warren G. Harding) raised a family, including a son, Robert Harding Shaffer, born in 1874. One of Jacob’s cousins founded the Shaffer Pen Company.

Jacob Shaffer was an active participant in the annual Northern reunion of Sultana survivors (the Tennessee Union survivors met in Knoxville). Jacob N. Shaffer is listed in the May 4, 1900, Stark County (Ohio) Democrat as being among the few dozen survivors who attended a reunion that year at the Odd Fellows Hall.

He had certainly come a long way since his boyhood days in Lancaster, Pa.

Sultana memorial in Mount Olive Baptist Church near Knoxville, Tennessee. Many of those on board were Union cavalrymen from East Tennessee, a loyal part of the state. (Scott Mingus photo)
Sultana memorial in Mount Olive Baptist Church near Knoxville, Tennessee. Many of those on board were Union cavalrymen from East Tennessee, a loyal part of the state. (Scott Mingus photo)


Shaffer (misspelled as I. N. Schaeffer) account in Chester D. Berry, Loss of the Sultana and Reminiscences of Survivors: History of a Disaster… (Lansing, MI: Darius D. Thorp, 1892).

May 4, 1900, Stark County (Ohio) Democrat

Shaffer family data on

Records of the 115th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, including Official Roster of the Soldiers of the State of Ohio in the War of the Rebellion, 1861-1866, Volume 8, by Ohio Roster Commission (Joseph B. Foraker, Governor, James S. Robinson, Sec’y of State and H. A. Axline, Adjutant-General), 1886.