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.

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