Sunday, May 26, 2013

Loss of the CSS Chattahoochee on the Apalachicola River, Florida

Remains of the CSS Chattahoochee after recovery from the Chattahoochee River in the early 1960s. This view shows a portion of the steam engine. Source: Naval History and Heritage Command on-line photo archives.

The Confederate Navy never really had a presence in Florida throughout the Civil War, mainly because of the lack of major ports (e.g., Mobile, Charleston) and the decision by CSA leadership early in the war to not expend resources defending the state. In early 1863, US Navy Secretary Gideon Welles received reports of the construction of the Confederate gunboat CSS Chattahoochee in Georgia, just over the border with Florida. The main purpose of this ship was to protect the vital industrial hub of Columbus, GA, along with other important Confederate points on the Chattahoochee/Apalachicola River system. Rumors also appeared to circulate that the ultimate purpose of this and other Confederate gunboats being constructed on the river was to break the blockade of Apalachicola, at the mouth of the river.

Welles sent orders to Rear Adm. Theodorus Bailey, commanding the East Gulf Blockading Squadron, to conduct reconnaissance up the Apalachicola River to ascertain the status of the Confederate gunboats on the river, with a view towards eventually conducting sorties to destroy or capture them. Bailey replied that, in his view, the extreme shallowness of the bar at the mouth of the river (6 feet at extreme high tide) rendered it almost impossible for any but the smallest gunboat to exit or enter the river. He opined that the main purpose of these Confederate gunboats must be for river defense, and that he could not send any warships up the river until shallow-draft river gunboats from the Mississippi Squadron could be released to him for use. That said, he maintained a flotilla of gunboats on patrol at the mouth of the river to confront and deter any Confederate Navy sorties.

On 30 May 1863, the Chattahoochee was anchored near Blountstown, Florida, about 78 miles above the mouth of the Apalachicola River. Her commander, John J. Guthrie, was informed that a Union Navy cutting out expedition had captured the blockade runner Fashion nearby, a schooner that had been loaded with cotton to run the blockade. Determined to avenge this, and demonstrate to the Union blockaders it was the Confederate Navy that controlled the river, he ordered steam up. Something went terribly wrong during this procedure, and one or more of the ship’s boilers exploded, killing 19 crewmen and injuring many others. The ship sank to the bottom of the river. Tragically, this was perhaps the only major effort by the CS Navy in Florida during the War, an effort that unfortunately ended in disaster.

Based on intelligence from escaped slaves, Lt. Cdr. A. F. Crosman of the USS Somerset, on blockade at the river mouth, reported the destruction of the Chattahoochee to Adm. Bailey in early June. The Confederates recovered all the ship’s guns for use on shore batteries, and eventually raised the ship itself, which was brought to Columbus for repair and refitting. She was deliberately destroyed at her moorings there in April 1865 to prevent capture by Union forces at the end of the War.
Today you can view the remains of this ill-fated warship (see photo above), along with a nice model and painting of her, at the Port Columbus National Civil War Naval Museum in Columbus, GA.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Capture of Georgina and Some Furry Friends

The English-built steamer Georgina had the potential to be one of the most effective ship ever to serve in the Confederate States Navy. She was a large steamer with a good size hold for cargo and had several placement for large caliber guns. Like many of the English-built cruisers, great secrecy surrounded her construction. It is still not clear whether the Confederacy intended her to be a commerce raiding cruiser or a blockade runner.

During her maiden (and only) voyage  in the Spring of1863, she was definitely a blockade runner.  Loaded with small arms, naval artillery, black powder, money, and alcohol, Georgina attempted to the run into Charleston. She did not make it.  U.S. Navy ships USS America, Wissahockon, and Housatonic spotted her and opened fired.  The shots struck Georgina.  During the chase, Georgina's captain committed a serious navigation error, causing the ship to run hard aground. He and the ship's company immediately abandoned ship.

Wissahockon's commanding officer ordered a boarding team to take possession of the ship and "all prisoners."  One of Wissahockon's division officers, Lieutenant Israel Vail, in his excellent memoir Three Years on the Blockade, tells us what happened next:

"A boat was immediately lowered from our ship, and Lieutenant Casey was sent to board the stranger, with orders to bring back the prisoners with him, and to ascertain what cargo she had, and get such other information as he could by an examination of her papers. It was past midnight, but we all sat up and waited patiently for the return of the boat, as we were anxious to see the prisoners and hear all the particulars about the ship.

In due time the boat returned bringing the prisoners, which consisted of a large Newfoundland dog and a very large Southdown sheep. Lieutenant Casey had obeyed his instructions to the letter, so far at least as the prisoners were concerned, for the dog and sheep were the only living things to be found on board the vessel, and these amiable animals had met him at the gangway as he stepped on board, and gave him a hearty welcome, at the same time indicating their willingness to surrender, without any words on the subject.

The arrival of these unexpected prisoners caused an immense amount of amusement for us, as we all crowded to the rail to see them hoisted on board, and the Lieutenant seemed to be very proud of his peaceful capture. He reported that he had made a thorough examination of the ship in search of officers and crew, whom it was possible might be stowed away somewhere among the cargo, but, that he could find no trace of any living beings except the prisoners mentioned. So he had concluded that all hands had escaped to the shore in their boats, as soon as the ship had struck the bar. Signals were at once made from our ship for assistance in getting the stranger off the bar, and in a few minutes several boats arrived from the other blockading ships, and preparations were made for hauling her off.

There was no manifest of the cargo found, but it was presumed that she was loaded with arms and ammunition, as a portion of the cargo was in sight, and consisted of small rifled cannon and Enfield rifles. There must also have been a considerable quantity of medical stores on board, as quite a number of bottles of quinine were found, as well as several cases of brandy. The quality of the latter article was tested.”

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Boat Expedition on the Florida Gulf Coast - April 1863

USS Commodore McDonough. The USS Ft. Henry would have looked similar. Source:  Naval History and Heritage Command photo archives.
One of the Union gunboats along the Florida Gulf Coast in the East Gulf Blockading Squadron was the USS Ft. Henry, under the command of Acting Lieutenant Edward Yorke McCauley. The ship was a converted New York ferryboat, a sidewheel steamer. She patrolled the “Big Bend” portion of the coast from Tampa Bay to the St. Marks River. Adm. Bailey referred to the ship and its crew as the “terror of the coast” due to its success in capturing blockade runners, conducting shore raids to destroy salt works and capture contraband, and other exploits.
On 28 March 1863 the USS Sagamore rendezvoused with the Ft. Henry at Cedar Key. The Sagamore had earlier taken on two launches with landing parties of seamen and marines from the squadron flagship USS St. Lawrence, and here took on two ship’s boats from the Ft. Henry with landing parties. The Sagamore then proceeded south and on 2 April debarked a large landing force off Bayport, north of Tampa Bay and west of the Town of Brooksville, under the overall command of Lt. McCauley. The harbor at Bayport was known to be a haven for blockade runners.

The landing party consisted of two launches from the St. Lawrence, a launch and cutter from the Ft. Henry, a launch and cutter from the Sagamore, and a cutter under the command of the Ft. Henry’s surgeon as an ambulance boat. The boats pulled for shore under heavy weather conditions. This slowed their progress such that Confederate lookouts on shore spotted the approaching landing party. The Confederates ran several smaller sloops aground in the shallow water at the east end of the harbor. They set fire to a larger schooner loaded with cotton. A boat from the Sagamore captured and burned the sloop Helen, loaded with corn.
A small battery of two field guns on shore engaged the Union boats, along with riflemen in earthworks. One seaman from the Sagamore was injured, but not severely, by a musket ball. The bluejackets answered the Confederate fire with their Dahlgren boat howitzers mounted on the bows of the larger launches, silencing the battery. Seeing that their mission was largely accomplished, McCauley ordered the landing force to withdraw. They then rowed north back towards Cedar Key, along the way investigating the Chassahowitzka, Homosassa, Crystal, Withlacoochee and Wacassassa Rivers for blockade runners or contraband. The boat expedition rejoined the Sagamore and Ft. Henry at Cedar Key the evening of 7 April. They had been out for 5 days and covered about 75 miles of shoreline, an amazing feat. McCauley had nothing but praise for the sailors and marines who made this expedition successful.

Sketch of the harbor at Bayport, Florida, during the boat expedition in April 1863. Confederate blockade runners run ashore are on the right in the inner harbor. Large blockade runner schooner burned with cotton is in the narrow mouth between the inner and outer harbors. Confederate battery is shown on the north shore and rifle pits are on north and south shores, along with locations of U.S. Navy ship's boats. Source:  Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Admiral and the Overseer in the Vicksburg Campaign

In order to capture Vicksburg, Mississippi, Union forces had to control the Yazoo River.  David Dixon Porter had his men and ships begin clearing out trees and sweeping the river for torpedoes. During the operation, Porter witnessed local plantation owners setting fire to their stocks of cotton.  He also noticed that plantation's overseer did not seem to care that his boss had just set the place on fire.  He took no notice to the Yankee forces in his backyard, either.  Seeing this, the flag officer struck up a conversation with the overseer.  Here is how Porter remembered the conversation in his book Incidents and Anecdotes of the Civil War :

A burly overseer, weighing over two hundred pounds, sat at the door of log-hut with a pipe in his mouth. He was a white man, half bull-dog, half blood-hound, and his face expressed everything that was bad in human nature, but he smoked away as if nothing was the matter—as Nero fiddled while Rome was burning. He looked on us with perfect indifference; our presence didn’t seem to disturb him at all. Doubtless he felt quite secure; that we didn’t want anything so bad as he was.

I called to him, and he came down in his shirt-sleeves, bareheaded, and looked stolidly at me as if to say, “Well, what do you want?”

“Why did those fools set fire to that cotton?” I inquired.

“Because they didn’t want you fools to have it,” he replied. “It’s ourn, and I guess things ain’t come to such a pass that we can’t do as we please with our own.”

“Tell them we won’t trouble it,” I said; “it is wicked to see such material going off like smoke.”

In five minutes he had a dozen Negroes at his side, and they were all sent up the bayou on a full run to stop the burning of cotton. He believed our word, and we did not disappoint him.

“And who are you ?” I inquired of the man.

“I am in charge of this plantation,” he replied; “this is the mother of my children”—pointing to a fat, thick-lipped Negress who stood, with her bosom all bare and arms a-kimbo, about ten yards away—”and these fine fellows are my children,” he continued, pointing to some light-colored boys who had followed him down.

“I suppose you are Union, of course? You all are so when it suits you,” I said.

“No, by G-- , I’m not, and never will be; and as to the others, I know nothing about them. Find out for yourself. I’m for Jeff Davis first, last, and all the time. Do you want any more of me?” he inquired, “for I am not a loquacious man at any time.”

“No, I want nothing more with you,” I replied; “but I am going to steam into that bridge of yours across the stream and knock it down. Is it strongly built?”

“You may knock it down and be d—d,” he said, “It don’t belong to me; and, if you want to find out how strong it is, pitch into it . You’ll find a hard nut to crack; it ain’t made of candy.”

"You are a Yankee by birth, are you not ?” I asked.

“Yes, d—n it, I am,” he replied; “that’s no reason I should like the institution. I cut it long ago,” and he turned on his heel and walked off.

We came to one more bridge; down it went like nine-pins, and we steamed slowly on, forcing our way through small, lithe willows that seemed to hold us in a grip of iron. This lasted for an hour, during which we made but half a mile. But that was the last of the willows for a time. Had they continued, we would have been obliged to give it up. The small sprouts, no larger than my little finger, caught in the rough plates of the overhang and held us as the threads of the Lilliputians held Gulliver.

The banks of the bayou were high with right behind us with an army, and an army, too, that was no respecter of ducks, chickens, pigs, or turkeys, for they used to say of one particular regiment in Sherman’s corps that it could catch, scrapes, and skin a hog without a soldier leaving the ranks. I was in hopes they would pay the apostate Yankee a visit, if only to teach him good manners.