MARION, Ark. — What remains of the greatest maritime disaster in U.S. history lies buried beneath an Arkansas beanfield where the Mississippi River once ran.
A century-and-a-half later, residents of the nearest town and descendants of passengers aboard the steamboat Sultana are gathering to commemorate a disaster that was overshadowed by Abraham Lincoln's assassination.
Along Highway 55 entering Marion, Arkansas, a small banner welcomes the descendants arriving for Monday's anniversary. Workers are feverishly restoring a mural depicting the steamboat as they seek to give the disaster its place in history.
The Sultana blew up on April 27, 1865, about seven miles north of Memphis, Tennessee, claiming as many as 1,800 lives, according to historical estimates. The Titanic claimed fewer — 1,517 — when it sank 45 years later.
But the momentous events of April 1865 — Lincoln's death and Gen. Robert E. Lee's surrender among them — all but eclipsed the tragedy on the Mississippi.
That month, thousands of Union prisoners newly freed in the South were being sent back north on steamboats. The Sultana was carrying six times its capacity with almost 2,500 people, among them many emaciated, injured or sick Union veterans.
"The nation had just endured four long years of civil war, over 600,000 lives were lost and people were accustomed to reading about thousands of men dying in battles," said Jerry O. Potter, a Memphis lawyer who counts himself among a handful of Sultana experts.
At 2 a.m. on April 27, as the Sultana navigated a swollen Mississippi that was flooded to treetop height and about 4 miles wide, three of the steamer's boilers exploded, sending flames and passengers into the air.
Residents of the tiny towns that dotted the river lashed together logs to make rescue rafts. Marion Mayor Frank Fogelman said people on both sides of his great-grandfather's family were among those rescuers.
"My grandmother made reference to it in the family Bible," Fogelman said. "The way I understand it, they used the raft to remove people from the wreckage and put them up in the treetops and then came back for everyone once all the survivors were away from the wreckage and the fire."
Passengers who escaped the burning ship struggled in the dark, cold water. Hundreds died of hypothermia or drowned. Bodies were still being pulled from the riverbanks months later, while others were never recovered.
The wreckage is now buried about 30 feet beneath a field not far from Marion, inside the river's flood-control levees. The river has since run a new course and runs about a mile east of the spot.
It wasn't until last year that the state of Arkansas erected a bronze plaque at the edge of a parking to memorialize the tragedy. Those who know the Sultana's story are hoping Monday's anniversary events will help make the sinking more than just a footnote to the end of the Civil War.
When the memorial is over, the 12,000-person town plans to turn a temporary exhibit into a permanent Sultana museum. The exhibit includes documents, photos, a canoe-sized replica of the steamboat and a wall covered in white panels with the name of every soldier, civilian and crew member.
"We've had a few people see this list and find an ancestor," said Norman Vickers, a local historian. "We hope more people will come and look at it, and maybe find something."
Potter, who wrote "The Sultana Tragedy" in 1992, is still researching the stories of those involved.
He recalled one former soldier who failed to re-board the Sultana when it steamed from Memphis. The soldier paid a local man to ferry him out to the Sultana so he could continue on to Ohio. The ex-soldier died in the disaster, but his best friend survived to tell about that twist of fate.
Years later, sitting at a descendants' reunion, Potter was able to connect the two families.
"That has been the one of the most rewarding parts of this, being able to help descendants make that connection," he said.
"Because to me, the greatest tragedy of the Sultana is that history has forgotten these men."