Google+ Georgia On My Mind: The Chattahoochee Isn't Just a River

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Chattahoochee Isn't Just a River

The subject of the Confederate Navy is not generally touched on during history courses in our high schools, middle schools, or even the history curriculum I used to teach fourth and fifth graders a few years ago. The only scant mention involves the match-up between the CSS Virginia (Merrimac) and Monitor, but even then it's given drive-by treatment since the Confederate Navy isn't tested, and quite frankly there is other content to introduce.

I would hope Georgia history teachers at the 8th grade level discuss Georgia's part in building the Confederate Navy, but then again, I'm not so sure it's done for many different reasons.

The Confederate States of America established their Navy on February 21, 1861. From the outset the goal was not to match the size of the United States Navy. Instead, the Confederates planned on using innovative technological advances to gain tactical superiority utilizing new ideas such as submarines, torpedo boats, mines, and ironclads.

The Confederate goals were simple. They wanted to hinder the Union efforts by attacking U.S. merchant ships world-wide, and break the Union blockade along southern coasts that had put a strangle-hold on the southern economy.

While I could write volumes regarding the Confederate Navy, I want to touch on a little known part Georgia had to play regarding naval development.

First, we look to Columbus, Georgia along the Chattahoochee River. The Iron Works in Columbus had been in operation for a long time making farm equipment, stoves, and decorative iron pieces, but by June, 1862, the Confederate Navy leased the Columbus Iron Works, and led by John H. Warner, a former U.S. Navy engineer, the Iron Works grew into the largest manufacturer of naval machinery within the Confederacy.

One of the gunboats commissioned was the CSS Chattahoochee.

The CSS Chattahoochee?

Yes, it's not just the name of a river that winds it's way through points north of Atlanta and far south. It was also the name of a Confederate gunboat built on the river of the same name.

The story surrounding the Chattahoochee took place in Saffold, Georgia. Today, Saffold, located in Early County is about as far south as you can travel in Georgia without being in Florida. It's as remote today as it was back in 1862 when the ship was built even though there are some houses on the property today. Saffold is 175 miles south of Columbus and 140 miles upriver from Apalachicola.

In the Fall of 1861 Confederate Navy officers and the chief engineer for the Columbus Naval Works selected Saffold as the spot to build the Chattahoochee because it was so remote, plus the area had an abundance of timber. In fact, several of the sources I have reviewed state as many as five thousand board feet of lumber a day could be had from the local sawmill. 

Another reason for choosing the Saffold location had to do with David S. Johnston, a planter living in Saffold. I like to think of him as Georgia's answer to Noah. Johnston had a strong desire to help the Confederacy, but other than the location of his plantation, the fact he had access to the lumber, and had a ready-made labor force of 90 slaves, Johnston had absolutely NO experience building a boat of any kind.

Johnston's contract with the Confederate Navy called for the ship to be delivered in 120 days at a cost of $47,500.

This website has a few pictures of the Saffold site and describes the Chattahoochee as a three-masted steam vessel armed with four smoothbore 32-pounders in broadside, a 9-inch Dahlgren on a front pivot and a 32-pounder rifle on the rear pivot.

Some sources have described the Chattahoochee as a riverboat and ocean sailing craft all rolled into one equipped with steam engines and sails. The mission plan for the CSS Chattahoochee was simple - steam downriver, break the blockade and open the port of Apalachicola in order to return supply ships and trade to the region.

But there were problems, of course.

First, the deadline for Johnston to deliver the ship came and went which is not really a surprising detail since Johnston and his slaves had no ship building experience.

Realizing skilled workers were needed for certain aspects of the ship's design Johnston placed an ad in the Columbus Daily Sun touting "steady employment and good wages for ship carpenters, joiners, caulkers", etc.

To further entice folks a line at the bottom of the ad said, "All hands employed at the Confederate States Naval Yard are exempt from military duty and anyone in the army can be furloughed to work there."

Navy officers also began suspecting Johnston was using the yard at Saffold for personal business rather than completing the contract, so a strict timetable was put into place.

Finally, ten months past the original deadline the CSS Chattahoochee was delivered on December 8, 1862.

It's clear that originally the Confederate Navy had great plans for the Chattahoochee based on the fact that Lt. Catesby ap Roger Jones was chosen to command the gunboat. Jones had become a famous southern hero when he commanded the CSS Virginia (Merrimac) against the USS Monitor. In case you are wondering.....the "ap" in Jones' name is Welsh meaning "son of".

The Chattahoochee was finally launched in February, 1863. Unfortunately, it ran aground and seriously damaged its hull its first day out.

By the time it was ready to go again the Confederates had sunk obstructions in the Apalachicola River to keep Union ships from venturing up the river. Those same obstructions dashed the hopes of the Chattahoochee's crew from engaging the enemy. During most of 1863, the ship remained  above the obstructions basically serving as a glorified gun battery occasionally holding drills, but that's about it.

It was safe duty, but also boring duty.

Jones moved on to another post and Lt. J.J. Guthrie took command. In late May, 1863 the Chattahoochee steamed down the Apalachicola to aid the schooner Fashion that had taken on cotton and was planning to run the blockade. It had been captured by the Union below the obstructions, but many historians believe Lt. Guthrie intended on ramming the obstructions, but many historians believe Lt. Guthrie intended on ramming the obstructions to give the Fashion assistance.

This site advises further:

Tragically, neither the captain nor his crew knew that a severe early season hurricane was about to move in from the Gulf. The wind and rain increased through the night and by the morning of May 27, 1863 when Guthrie returned, the vessel was already feeling the brunt of the approaching storm. These conditions probably contributed greatly to what happened next. As the crew prepared to raise steam for the trip upriver, an argument broke out over how much water was in the boiler. Reportedly, a gauge was not working and before the ship's chief engineer could intervene, a massive steam explosion rocked the vessel.

It is widely believed this malfunctioning gauge caused the crew to unknowingly allow the boiler to grow red hot before filling it with water. When water poured in hitting the red hot metal casing, it instantly vaporized and burst through various sections of piping attached to the boiler. Sixteen members of the crew were killed within minutes, through being scalded by the steam. Another was mortally injured from a large lump of flying metal ripping upwards through the deck. Two more men were severely wounded and another four received minor injuries. Panicked into believing the ship's gunpowder store adjacent to the magazines might explode, the remaining crew opened plugs in the ship's hull and let her sink to the bottom of the muddy river. Descriptions of what conditions on the deck of the Chattahoochee were like vary; but most confirm a total loss of order by her officers, with men running about frantic with fear and in pain from their wounds. Many jumped overboard and at least three bodies were recovered downstream some days later. The dead and wounded were eventually taken ashore despite an increasing and raging storm.....The ship was quickly recovered and towed upriver to Columbus where she was again refitted.

Refitted again?

Yes, but again the ship didn't see any service. As the Union gained ground in April, 1864 and got closer to Columbus the crew of the Chattahoochee sank their ship in the Chattahoochee River to prevent its capture by the Union.

It would be one hundred years before the ship saw the sunlight again when it was located and raised. 

Part of the hull and the original steam engines are on display at the National Civil War Naval Museum in Columbus, Georgia.

Yes! Columbus, Georgia has a naval museum....

Instead of blowing through the town on my way to Florida next time, I think we need to spend the night and investigate Columbus a little.

1 comment:

Eddie said...

Great article! I didn't know of this.
Eddie Hunter

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...