Union Raid on the Apalachicola
A minor Union raid on the lower Apalachicola River in Florida is all but forgotten today, yet it resulted in the destruction of one of the most powerful Confederate warships afloat.
The raid was carried out during the War Between the States (or Civil War) by a party of fewer than 50 officers and sailors from the U.S. Navy. Leaving their blockade ships off the coast of Apalachicola on May 24, 1863, they pushed 45 miles up the Apalachicola River in search of the blockade runner Fashion.
Lieutenant Commander George Morris of the U.S.S. Port Royal had learned that the Fashion was being loaded with cotton for an attempt to run the Union blockade of the Southern coastline. He ordered Acting Master Edgar Van Slyck to lead a boat party up the river to take the sloop and bring her back down to Apalachicola Bay. Van Slyck set off in a ship’s launch and first cutter with a handful of officers and 41 sailors.
The party was aware that a small Confederate force then held old Fort Gadsden, an earthwork built about on the lower river by troops under Andrew Jackson during the First Seminole War. To avoid detection, Van Slyck and his men waited until dark to pass the fort. The plan worked and the Union boats slipped past without detection.
The men rowed almost 45 miles to a point almost to within sight of a Confederate artillery battery erected at “The Narrows” to defend the river during the previous winter, but did not find the Fashion. They turned back and were on their way to the Gulf when one of the men spotted a barge near the mouth of Brushy Creek. It was of the type used to bring cotton down from upriver plantations in Florida, Georgia and Alabama.
Van Slyck turned up the creek and found it to be navigable. He and his men found the sloop Fashion tied up to the bank after a row of about two miles.:
…Owing to the heavy rain at that time, our surprise was complete. After one discharge of the 12-pounder howitzer, we immediately cut her lines and vigorously towed her from the creek to the river, where we burned the barge and proceeded on our return. (Acting Master Edgar Van Slyke, USN, 1863).
The heavy rain was the front edge of a rare May tropical storm or hurricane that struck the Apalachicola Bay area that year.
The sailors reached the main river with the Fashion and started down for the bay without further resistance, even after they fired a round of canister from their howitzer into the Confederate outpost at Fort Gadsden. The party reached the blockade ships at 7 o’clock the next morning, just in time to avoid being caught in small boats by main strength of the approaching tropical system.
News of the incursion spread quickly up the Apalachicola River and soon reached Lt. J.J. Guthrie, commander of the CSS Chattahoochee. The 130-foot Confederate warship was at her home port on the riverfront of Chattahoochee, Florida.
Armed with six heavy naval guns and crewed by more than 100 men, the Chattahoochee was more than a match for the Union warships doing blockade duty off Apalachicola Bay. She had previously been prevented from reaching the bay, however, by obstructions placed in the river by the Southern army.
Determined to recapture the Fashion, even if it meant blasting the obstructions out of his way, Guthrie ordered his men to raise steam and the Chattahoochee soon made way down the Apalachicola. The ship made it as far as Blountstown in today’s Calhoun County, Florida, before shallow water forced her to halt for the night.
Lt. Guthrie and a small party of men went forward in a small boat to gather intelligence. Hard rain lashed their open boat but they were able to learn that the Union raiders had escaped.
Returning to Blountstown the next morning in driving rain and increasing wind, Guthrie ordered his men to raise steam on the Chattahoochee so she could return to her home port at the head of the river. The sounds of an argument could be heard coming from below deck. The ship’s chief engineer was sick with a severe fever and the engine room crew was uncertain whether there was sufficient water in the twin boilers that produced steam for the Chattahoochee’s engines.
He rose from his bed to investigate just as someone opened a valve. As the water hit the overheated boilers a massive explosion buckled the decks of the ship. Super-heated steam ruptured one of the lines feeding the boilers and men were scalded to death where they stood. Sixteen men died on the spot or were drowned in the chaos that followed. At least one more would die over coming days.
The tropical system was now growing in fury and panic ensued aboard the ship. Fear grew that the ammunition bunker might explode and someone opened a seacock (also called a Kingston valve) allowing river water to flood into the lower deck. The CSS Chattahoochee sank to her decks in the storm-tossed river.
Acting Master Van Slyck and the men of the Union boat party had played an unwitting role in the sinking of the most powerful Confederate warship then afloat in Florida. The Chattahoochee was raised in coming months and towed to Columbus, Georgia, but it took shipyard crews there one year to repair the damage to her hull and decks. It would take even longer before new engines and boilers could be installed and the ship had just returned to operational status when she was scuttled by her own crew at the end of the War Between the States.
Several points of interest connected to the Fashion raid can be visited today. Fort Gadsden is now a historic site maintained by the National Forest Service and is located off State Highway 65 just south of Sumatra, Florida. The park preserves the earthen walls of Fort Gadsden, as well as the remains of the “Negro Fort,” a fortress destroyed by U.S. forces in 1816.
A portion of her wreck of the Chattahoochee was raised during the 20th century and can be seen today at the National Civil War Naval Museum in Columbus, Georgia, which also houses other exhibits on the Chattahoochee as well as on both the Union and Confederate navies during the Civil War.
A memorial to the seventeen men killed in the explosion of the ship can be seen on Main Street in Chattahoochee, Florida.