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Thursday, February 4, 2010

Explosion aboard the C.S.S. Chattahoochee

By Dale Cox

A few weeks ago I discussed the maiden voyage of the C.S.S. Chattahoochee, a powerful warship built by the Confederate Navy to defend the Apalachicola, Chattahoochee and Flint River valleys from Union attack. One of the most prosperous counties in Florida at the time of the Civil War, Jackson County was one of the key areas guarded by the Chattahoochee.

The ship was tied up at Chattahoochee Landing on May 26, 1863, when news arrived that a party of Union sailors had come up the lower Apalachicola River in small boats and captured the blockade runner Fashion near old Fort Gadsden. Loaded with 49 bales of cotton, the schooner was a valuable prize to the Federals.

Hearing the alarm, Lieutenant J.J. Guthrie ordered his men to raise steam and prepare for action. With her guns frowning out over the Jackson County shore, the Chattahoochee began her trip downriver to make sure the Union sailors didn’t plan to penetrate deeper into the river valley. When the ship reached Blountstown, however, the water proved too shallow to continue. Guthrie ordered his men to drop anchor and then went on down the river in a small boat to investigate the situation.

Weather forecasting in those days was even more “iffy” than it is today. A major early season hurricane was storming up the Gulf of Mexico, but no one knew it. As Guthrie traveled down in his small boat, however, the first bands of rain began to lash the region as the storm headed toward landfall at Apalachicola.

By the time he returned to the Chattahoochee the next morning with news that the Federal raiders had returned to their ships, the storm was blowing hard. The depth of the water was once again checked, but the river had not risen and the ship was still not able to continue past Blountstown. Guthrie ordered his crew to return to home port at Chattahoochee Landing.

It was then that disaster struck. The chief engineer was sick with a fever and not present as his officers and men began to raise steam. They allowed the boiler to get too hot before adding water and when water finally hit the red hot metal, it caused a massive steam explosion.

A pipe leading out of the boiler exploded and a jet of pressurized steam swept through the ship. Some men were scalded to death where they stood, while others tried to get away leaving parts of their bodies still attached to the deck where they had been standing.

Panic gripped the ship as the sailors tried to deal with the disaster in the midst of a pounding hurricane. Someone expressed fear that the gunpowder in the magazines might explode and orders were given to scuttle the ship in order to prevent a secondary explosion. The Chattahoochee went down.

The disaster aboard the C.S.S. Chattahoochee claimed 17 lives. Another 6 men were scalded by the steam but lived. The most powerful Confederate warship ever to operate in Florida was sunk to her top deck in the mud of the Apalachicola River. The accident represented the greatest loss by the Confederate Navy in Florida during the entire war.

The ship was later raised and towed to Columbus, Georgia, where she was repaired and refitted, but she never again appeared along the shorelines of Jackson, Gadsden, Calhoun and Liberty Counties. Destroyed by her own crew at the end of the war, the Chattahoochee remained at the bottom of the river for which she was named for nearly 100 years. Part of her wreck can be seen today at the National Civil War Naval Museum in Columbus.

Editor’s Note: Writer and historian Dale Cox is the author of numerous books on local and Southern history. His newest book, The History of Jackson County, Florida: The War Between the States, is being released this week. The book will be available at www.exploresouthernhistory.com/dalecox and will also be in stock at Chipola River Book and Tea in Downtown Marianna next week.

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