Cahaba Prison and the Sultana Disaster

- Smith Waters, Mollie
As the American Civil War was coming to a close, many Confederate prison camps paroled their inmates. For example, Cahaba Federal Prison in Cahaba, Alabama, released their prisoners of war in March 1865. The majority of those men traveled to Vicksburg, Mississippi, where they boarded steamboats heading north. Unfortunately, nearly 1,000 former prisoners of war were onboard the steamboat Sultana when it exploded in the Mississippi River on April 27, 1865. Although accounts vary as to how many people perished, the Sultana disaster remains on record as the greatest loss of life in American maritime history.

While this catastrophic event made news in its own time, it was overshadowed by headlines about President Abraham Lincoln’s death and the hunt for his assassin. Through this presentation, go back in time to explore Cahaba Prison’s origins, how it became a prisoner of war camp during the American Civil War, and what prison conditions were like. We will consider what happened when the war ended, how so many released from Cahaba ended up on the Sultana, and the lingering impacts of these events today.