Waves roll ashore on St. George Island, Florida. The island was at or near landfall for the May hurricane of 1863.

The magnitude of a hurricane that struck the Gulf Coast between Apalachicola and St. Marks in May 1863 has long been underestimated.

The storm played at least a peripheral role in the sinking of the CSS Chattahoochee at Blountstown, Florida. That ship went down after a steam explosion on May 27, 1863. Sixteen members of her crew were killed.

For more information, please visit: Explosion on the Chattahoochee.

Damage and death, however, was far from limited to the loss of the Confederate warship. A report in the Richmond Daily Dispatch, for example, reveals that the hurricane was far worse than many writers have realized:

 

San Marcos de Apalache (Fort St. Marks) was under 5-feet of water during the hurricane. It is now a state park in St. Marks, Florida.

…There was a very heavy gale and rain in Florida during the week ending the 29th. At Newport the town was four feet deep. The salt works near there were drowned out. One white boy, seven negroes, thirty five mules and eight oxen were drowned. The water in Fort St. Marks was five feet deep, and the troops had to signal the steamer Spray for assistance. – The river rose to a very great height at St. Marks, and the entire town was flooded, doing much damage. One regiment of artillery and one of infantry, in camp between Tallahassee and St. Marks, lost all their tents and fixtures. – Richmond Daily Dispatch, June 8, 1863.

Other newspapers across the South also carried coverage of the storm. The editor of the Tallahassee Floridian wrote to Macon’s Weekly Telegraph on May 30, 1863, reporting even higher human losses:

…We have had a heavy blow here the past week – the heaviest I ever witnessed in Florida at this season of the year. From the coast there are various rumors of loss of life and property. I have just heard that from the Ocklockonnee to Peurifoy’s Landing, twenty-one bodies of persons drowned were recovered on Friday, and eleven from Goose Creek, making thirty-two.

The Tallahassee-St. Marks Historic Railroad, now a bike and walking path, was underwater for several miles north of St. Marks, Florida.

The storm surge apparently reached several miles north of the town of St. Marks, another indication severity. The Columbus (GA) Times reported on June 3, 1863, that the water pushed far up the railroad line to Tallahassee:

…We learn that on last Wednesday and Thursday, a most terrific gale swept along the south coast of Florida, destroying the entire Salt Works near St. Marks and Bay Port, large quantities of salt, and drowning some forty white men and negroes. So strong was the gale the water from the gulf was driven out of its banks along the line of the St. Marks railroad, completely inundating the track for several miles back into the country.

The railroad bed is today’s Tallahassee-St. Marks Historic Railroad State Trail.

The Columbus editor expressed hope that “some portion of the shipping of the United States was caught in the gale, and driven ashore.” His hopes were realized.

The following report from Key West appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer six days later on June 12, 1863:

Apalachicola Bay on a peaceful morning.

…A very severe gale occurred at Apalachicola, Fla., a few days since, during which two of our vessels were wrecked at the entrance to that harbor and totally lost. The steamer Hendrick Hudson, Captain Cate, has just arrived from there, and from Captain Cate I learn these particulars: – That the gun-boat barque Amanda being at anchor at her usual station, broke loose from her moorings and drifted across the bay to the mainland in spite of all their efforts to save her. Being unable to get her off, she was stripped and blown up to keep her from the Rebels. No lives lost. The barquentine Andrew Manderson being there with a load of coal for supplying naval vessels, was also driven ashore and her masts, spars, sails and rigging were entirely swept clean from her deck by the violence of the gale. She is a total loss. The gun-boat Fort Henry was driven to sea and weathered the storm.

The USS Amanda was on station off East Pass which enters St. George Sound between the east end of St. George Island and west end of Dog Island. When the storm hit, she was driven ashore first on Dog Island. So severe was the tidal surge, however, that the ship broke free on her own and was hurtled across St. George Sound to the mainland. She was driven ashore on the mud flats there, not far from present-day Carrabelle, Florida.  The Hendrick Hudson (formerly the blockade runner Florida) survived the storm.

Wartime sketch of the USS Port Royal by F.H. Wilcke (Courtesy U.S. Navy Historical Center). She survived the hurricane.

Believing that Confederate troops were nearby, Acting Volunteer Lieutenant George E. Welch ordered his crew to fire the Amanda and abandon ship. Six damaged guns from the ship were later recovered by the U.S. Navy and carried to Dog Island. Whether they were ever salvaged from there is not known. The ship herself was a total loss.

The USS Andrew Manderson went ashore at the other end of St. George Island where even greater damage took place.  The Manderson was a barketine or three-masted sailing ship, not a “barge” as she has been described by some writers. The New York Herald described her loss in a letter from the USS Port Royal dated May 23, 1863:

…At West pass the damage by the gale was also considerable. The barkentine Andrew Manderson, of Philadelphia, loaded with coal for the squadron, ran ashore on Sand Island. Her masts were cut away after she struck. Several small prize vessels lying at anchor inside the pass were driven to sea or sank at their moorings. The United States gunsloop Brockenborough broke from her moorings and was run on shore at St. Vincent’s Island. She will be saved. The Port Royal and Somerset rode the gale out without damage.

A letter dated Thomasville, Georgia, on May 31, 1863, was published by the Macon Weekly Telegraph four days later:

The gale of Thursday is said to have done much mischief among the salt boilers on the Florida coast – One report says 150 lives were lost – many animals, much stock and salt. Hope it is not so bad – some, though, have certainly perished.

The storm must have been a hurricane, although hurricane researchers do not list a May storm in their data for 1863.

The total number of lives lost will never be known. If the estimate of 150 given by the Thomasville writer was accurate, then the storm was among the 25 deadliest ever to strike the continental United States.

Author’s note: I first described this hurricane from historical sources in an article on July 12, 2012. My findings have since been verified by researchers Mike Chenowith and C.J. Mock who published an article dubbing the storm Hurricane “Amanda” in the American Meteorological Society Journal of November 2013. 


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