Surviving the Worst: The Wreck of the Sultana at the End of the American Civil War Lesson Plan


On April 27, 1865, the steamboat Sultana exploded and sank some seven miles north of Memphis, Tennessee. The steamboat was carrying former Union prisoners of war that had boarded at Vicksburg, Mississippi, plus civilian passengers and the ship’s crew. About 1,700 of the approximately 2,400 passengers died in this disaster. Even though the tragedy of the Sultana is the worst maritime disaster in American history, it was back page news in a world that had already experienced the loss of life and destruction due to war, as well as the assassination of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln.


Mississippi Studies Framework: Competencies 1 – 4.


Grades 7 through 12


  • Mississippi History Now article, Surviving the Worst
  • Unlined paper
  • Rulers
  • Whiteboard and marker


The students will:

  • Determine the cause and effect of historical events.
  • Compose a news article.
  • Compose a poem or song.


The teacher will place on the board the words Titanic and Sultana. The teacher will ask the students what they know about each one. More than likely, the students will know more about the Titanic. The teacher will explain to the students that over the next several days they will learn about the fate of the Sultana, which is the greatest maritime disaster in American history.


The teacher will ask students to create a cause and effect chart. While working with partners, the teacher will instruct the students to use the Mississippi History Now article to complete the chart by putting the appropriate cause answers on the left of the events listed below and the appropriate effect answers on the right of the listed events:


  • Lack of good roads and access to the railroad
  • Transport of Union soldiers was delayed
  • The Sultana was overcrowded as it left Vicksburg
  • The Sultana exploded
  • The Sultana disaster is not well-known

Once the chart has been completed, the teacher will facilitate a class discussion about the article by asking for student volunteers to share information from the charts. The teacher can record student responses on the board.

The students will be instructed to write a newspaper article about the Sultana disaster. The teacher will remind the students that even though the Sultana remains the worst maritime disaster in American history, it was not front page news in 1865. When composing their news article, the students should be instructed to give the Sultana front page status.

Once the students have completed their news articles, allow them to move into groups of four and share their articles. Ask them to select one article from the group to be read to the class.

Have students remain in their groups for the next portion of the lesson. Instruct the students to write a poem or song that laments the Sultana disaster. The teacher may want to use as an example the song, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” by Gordon Lightfoot.


The students will present their songs/poems to the class.


  • Class participation
  • Chart
  • News articles
  • Poems/songs


  • Write a journal entry for a survivor of the Sultana disaster.
  • Plan a program that commemorates the anniversary of the Sultana disaster.
  • Research Union and Confederate prison of war camps.
  • Research primary sources that document the Sultana disaster.