1865 Civil War vets are caught in steamboat explosion On this day in 1865, an explosion on a Mississippi River steamboat kills an estimated 1,547 people, mostly Union soldiers returning home after the Civil War. Although this disaster near Memphis took a huge toll, it was barely noticed against the backdrop of the end of the Civil War, a conflict in which tens of thousands had died. The previous day had marked the final surrender and end of armed resistance by the remaining Confederate forces. Only two weeks earlier, President Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated. Prisoners of war who had been held in hellish conditions in Alabama’s Andersonville and Cahaba prison camps were trying to make their way home to Illinois. The steamboat Sultana was one of their only options. At 2 a.m. on April 26, the steamboat left Vicksburg, Mississippi. It was built to hold 376 passengers, but reports say that there were as many as 2,700 people on board as it lumbered slowly up the Mississippi River. It took 17 hours to make the journey to Memphis, where it stopped to pick up more coal. A couple of hours past midnight, the trip came to a sudden end: near the Arkansas side of the river, one of the Sultana‘s three boilers suddenly exploded. Hot metal debris ripped through the vessel and two other boilers exploded within minutes of the first. The passengers were killed by flying metal, scalding water, collapsing decks and the roaring fire that broke out on board. Some drowned as they were thrown into the water, but rescue boats were immediately dispatched, saving hundreds of lives. The final tally of casualties was hotly disputed. Some believe it may have been almost 2,000 people, though the U.S. Army said that only 1,200 people had been killed. Local customs officials determined that 1,547 were killed; that became the generally accepted count. The Sultana disaster remains one the most deadly maritime accidents in U.S. history. 1956 Rocky Marciano retires as world heavyweight champion On April 27, 1956, world heavyweight champ Rocky Marciano retires from boxing at age 31, saying he wants to spend more time with his family. Marciano ended his career as the only heavyweight champion with a perfect record–49 wins in 49 professional bouts, with 43 knockouts. Rocco Francis Marchegiano was born into a working-class family in Brockton, Massachusetts, on September 1, 1923. After being drafted into the U.S. Army in 1943, he reportedly began boxing as a way to get out of kitchen duty and other less-than-desirable jobs. Marciano finished his military service in 1946 and continued to box as an amateur. He tried out for the Chicago Cubs, but his dream of becoming a pro baseball player ended when he was soon cut from the team. He returned to boxing and fought his first professional match on March 17, 1947, defeating Lee Epperson in a third-round knockout. Marciano went on to win his next 15 matches by knockout. He became known as a tough fighter and powerful puncher, but he was criticized for his awkward style, which some though lacked finesse. On October 26, 1951, Marciano signaled to the boxing world that he was a contender when he faced former heavyweight champ Joe Louis and knocked him out in the eighth round. Marciano captured the heavyweight crown in Philadelphia on September 23, 1952, when he scored a knockout against defending champ Jersey Joe Walcott in the 13th round. Marciano faced Walcott again in Chicago on May 15, 1953, and defeated him in a first-round knockout. Marciano, nicknamed the “Brockton Blockbuster,” would successfully defend his title five more times, with his last professional bout, against Archie Moore in New York on September 21, 1955, ending in a ninth-round KO. On April 27, 1956, Marciano announced his retirement from boxing and said he had no plans to return to the ring for a comeback. Marciano died in a small-plane crash in Iowa on August 31, 1969. 1521 Navigator Ferdinand Magellan killed in the Philippines After traveling three-quarters of the way around the globe, Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan is killed during a tribal skirmish on Mactan Island in the Philippines. Earlier in the month, his ships had dropped anchor at the Philippine island of Cebu, and Magellan met with the local chief, who after converting to Christianity persuaded the Europeans to assist him in conquering a rival tribe on the neighboring island of Mactan. In the subsequent fighting, Magellan was hit by a poisoned arrow and left to die by his retreating comrades. Magellan, a Portuguese noble, fought for his country against the Muslim domination of the Indian Ocean and Morocco. He participated in a number of key battles and in 1514 asked Portugal’s King Manuel for an increase in his pension. The king refused, having heard unfounded rumors of improper conduct on Magellan’s part after a siege in Morocco. In 1516, Magellan again made the request and the king again refused, so Magellan went to Spain in 1517 to offer his services to King Charles I, later Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. In 1494, Portugal and Spain, at the prompting of Pope Alexander VI, settled disputes over newly discovered lands in America and elsewhere by dividing the world into two spheres of influence. A line of demarcation was agreed to in the Atlantic Ocean–all new discoveries west of the line were to be Spanish, and all to the east Portuguese. Thus, South and Central America became dominated by the Spanish, with the exception of Brazil, which was discovered by the Portuguese explorer Pedro Alvares Cabral in 1500 and was somewhat east of the demarcation line. Other Portuguese discoveries in the early 16th century, such as the Moluccas Islands–the Spice Islands of Indonesia–made the Spanish jealous. To King Charles, Magellan proposed sailing west, finding a strait through the Americas, and then continuing west to the Moluccas, which would prove that the Spice Islands lay west of the demarcation line and thus in the Spanish sphere. Magellan knew that the world was round but underestimated its size, thinking that the Moluccas must be situated just west of the American continent, not on the other side of a great uncharted ocean. The king accepted the plan, and on September 20, 1519, Magellan set sail from Spain in command of five ships and 270 men. Magellan sailed to West Africa and then to Brazil, where he searched the South American coast for a strait that would take him to the Pacific. He searched the Rio de la Plata, a large estuary south of Brazil, for a way through; failing, he continued south along the coast of Patagonia. At the end of March 1520, the expedition set up winter quarter at Port St. Julian. On Easter day at midnight, the Spanish captains mutinied against their Portuguese captain, but Magellan crushed the revolt, executing one of the captains and leaving another ashore when his ship left St. Julian in August. On October 21, he finally discovered the strait he had been seeking. The Strait of Magellan, as it became known, is located near the tip of South America, separating Tierra del Fuego and the continental mainland. Only three ships entered the passage; one had been wrecked and another deserted. It took 38 days to navigate the treacherous strait, and when ocean was sighted at the other end Magellan wept with joy. He was the first European explorer to reach the Pacific Ocean from the Atlantic. His fleet accomplished the westward crossing of the ocean in 99 days, crossing waters so strangely calm that the ocean was named “Pacific,” from the Latin word pacificus, meaning “tranquil.” By the end, the men were out of food and chewed the leather parts of their gear to keep themselves alive. On March 6, 1521, the expedition landed at the island of Guam. Ten days later, they reached the Philippines–they were only about 400 miles from the Spice Islands. After Magellan’s death, the survivors, in two ships, sailed on to the Moluccas and loaded the hulls with spice. One ship attempted, unsuccessfully, to return across the Pacific. The other ship, the Victoria, continued west under the command of the Basque navigator Juan Sebastian de Elcano. The vessel sailed across the Indian Ocean, rounded the Cape of Good Hope, and arrived at Seville on September 9, 1522, becoming the first ship to circumnavigate the globe.