The gunboat CSS Chattahoochee sank at Blountstown during a severe storm on May 27, 1863. It was Florida’s greatest naval tragedy of the War Between the States (or Civil War).
The Chattahoochee, named for the river on which she was built, was a powerful warship that mounted six heavy guns, was more than 110 feet long and carried a crew of more than 100 men. She was built at shipyard developed by plantation-owner David S. Johnston at Saffold in Southwest Georgia. He had never build a ship before and many of his workers and slaves had never even seen one.
CSS Chattahoochee took longer to build than expected due to the scarcity of necessary supplies, a lack of skilled shipbuilders and river floods that swamped the construction site in the floodplain forest of the Chattahoochee River.
The ship was launched at Saffold on January 1, 1863. Her original captain, Lt. Catesby ap R. Jones of the Confederate Navy, was a hero in the South. He had commanded the famed ironclad CSS Virginia (sometimes called the Merrimac) during her famed battle with the USS Monitor. The epic clash at Hampton Roads, Virginia, was the first battle between two ironclads.
The assignment of Jones to command the Chattahoochee is a clear indication of the hopes that the Confederate war effort held for her. He brought with him several of his officers and men from the CSS Virginia, which was scuttled by her crew in the James River during the Peninsula Campaign as Union troops made one of their many attempts to take Richmond.
Lt. Jones supervised the rest of the fitting of the ship and saw her become a full-fledged warship. The decision of the Confederate army to place obstructions in the Apalachicola River at “the Narrows” near present-day Wewahitchka, Florida, however, prevented the Chattahoochee from reaching Apalachicola Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. A disappointed Jones was transferred and command of the vessel was given to Lt. J.J. Guthrie. A number of the men from the CSS Virginia remained aboard.
The ship was tied to the Arsenal wharf at today’s River Landing Park in Chattahoochee, Florida, when news arrived that a Union boat party from the USS Port Royal had entered the lower Apalachicola River. The U.S. sailors had and captured the blockade runner Fashion in Brushy Creek north of today’s Prospect Bluff Historic Sites (Fort Gadsden) and were towing her downriver to the Gulf.
Lt. Guthrie ordered the crew of the Chattahoochee to raise steam. He intended to go down the river and recapture the blockade runner even if it meant he had to blast the army’s obstructions out of his way. The ship left her home port at Chattahoochee on May 26, 1863.
The vessel reached the sandbar at Blountstown that night where the water was found to be too shallow for her to get across. The crew dropped anchor and Lt. Guthrie went downstream in a small boat to gather intelligence and view the condition of the obstructions.
Neither the captain nor his crew knew that a major early season hurricane was about to blow in from the Gulf of Mexico. A light rain was already falling and the barometric pressure began a sudden drop as the Chattahoochee rocked at anchor in the Apalachicola River. By the time Lt. Guthrie made it back to the ship on the next morning, the storm was whipping up whitecaps on the river. Realizing that it was impossible to catch the Union raiders and concerned over the severity of the storm, he ordered his men to turn the vessel around and take her back upriver and out of danger.
Hurricane conditions likely contributed to what happened next.
The crew was preparing to raise steam for the trip when an argument broke out below decks. A gauge was not working properly and they could not tell how much water was in the boiler. The chief engineer was sick with a fever. He rose from his bunk to see what was wrong but before he could intervene the CSS Chattahoochee was suddely rocked by a massive explosion!
Shipyard crews later found that the malfunctioning gauge had allow the boiler to grow red hot before crew opened the valves to fill it with water. The cool water hit the red hot iron of the boiler and instantly vaporized to high-pressure steam. The steam to burst through piping attached to the boiler and sprayed out in a deadly jet into the engine room of the ship.
Sixteen members of the crew were killed instantly, scalded to death where they stood. Another man was mortally injured, two others were severely scalded and another four received minor burns.
Panicked that the gunpowder in the ship’s magazines might explode, other crew members opened the plugs in the ship’s hull and let the proud Confederate warship sink to the bottom of the storm-tossed Apalachicola.
The horrible accident was described by C.S. Navy officers:
…No description, I am told, could possibly be given of the scene on the deck of the Chattahoochee, men running about frantic with pain, leaving the impression of their bleeding feet, and sometimes the entire flesh, the nails and all, remaining behind them. The dead and wounded were taken on shore, where they remained until the next afternoon, most of the time with a terrible storm raging.
The wounded men spent more than 24-hours in miserable and muddy conditions on the riverbank at Blountstown before a paddlewheel steamboat finally reached them. They were taken first to Ocheesee Bluff where a makeshift hospital was set up at the historic Gregory House, which can be seen today across the river at Torreya State Park. They were tended there by the ship’s surgeon along with the doctors and ladies of Ocheesee. As soon as they could be stabilized, the victims were carried by boat for extended treatment in Columbus, Georgia.
The dead were taken to Chattahoochee where they were buried south of the Apalachicola Arsenal complex there. The burial site was forgotten over time but a 20th century construction project uncovered the graves. The bodies were exhumed by archaeologists and a monument stands today at the original grave site, which is on the west side of Main Street about 1/2 block south of U.S. 90.
A memorial is held there each year at 11 a.m. on the Friday of Memorial Day weekend.
The ship was later raised and towed to Columbus where she was refitted and returned to service before the end of the war. She was burned by her own crew in 1865 to prevent her capture by Union troops.
The stern section of the CSS Chattahoochee as well as one of her guns and artifacts from the wreck can be seen today at the National Civil War Naval Museum in Columbus, Georgia. The rest of the ship still rests on the bottom of the river near today’s Fort Benning.
Two Egg TV will be releasing a new documentary on the history of the Chattahoochee this weekend. We will post a link to it here as soon as it is available so check throughout the weekend!