Samuel J. Thrasher


Born in Hawkins County in Unionist East Tennessee in 1839, Samuel J. Thrasher travelled to Louisville, Kentucky to enlist with the 6th Regiment Kentucky Cavalry Volunteers in 1863. After two years, he was captured and briefly imprisoned in Marion, Alabama, before being paroled. On April 25, 1865, from Vicksburg, Mississippi, Thrasher headed up the Mississippi River on the S. S. Sultana. At Memphis, the ship unloaded freight and took on more passengers—2,300 passengers total, far more than its legal capacity of 376. Heavy rainfall had flooded the Mississippi River, rendering it far wider than usual. On April 27, the Sultana was roughly ten miles north of Memphis when its boilers exploded at 2 a.m. Widespread fire followed the initial blast and wave of debris shrapnel. Those surviving the initial explosion swarmed the already over-crowded decks seeking to abandon ship. Thrasher, who could not swim, was forced to remain with the burning hull as long as possible. He clung to a short rope to keep from being pushed overboard in the panic. When the crowd thinned, Thrasher and a few passengers threw lifelines into the river, pulled several men out of the water, and worked to put part of the fire out. The burning vessel drifted slowly down the swollen Mississippi. Many of the men who abandoned ship swam for miles before clinging to trees. Others tired in their efforts and drowned. Others drowned in desperate fights for bits of driftwood, panic bringing their untimely ends. Thrasher and a few others, however, stayed on the burning ship and made a raft out of some of the dislodged timbers. As the ship passed through a grove of small trees, they threw out a line and tied it to a tree, lodging the ship for a time. Thrasher’s group went ashore on their raft and waited for a boat to take them back to Memphis. Estimates have put the death toll as high as 1,800, more than was lost in the sinking of the Titanic, and the Sultana explosion is known as the worst American maritime disaster.

  • Released from Confederate prison camp, boarded the Sultana at Vicksburg, MS for return home
  • Stayed aboard the burning ship, pulled survivors from water
  • Survived on a raft until rescuers arrived