Wednesday, January 13, 2010

C.S.S. Chattahoochee: The Maiden Voyage of the Forgotten Confederate Defender of Jackson County



by Dale Cox

In January of 1863, the residents of the northeastern corner of Jackson County were stunned by an unexpected sight coming down the Chattahoochee River. The Confederate warship C.S.S. Chattahoochee was making her maiden voyage down the river.


Commissioned on January 1, 1863, the Chattahoochee was a ship of high hopes for the Confederacy. Nearly 150 feet long, she had three retractable masts as well as two independently operating steam propulsion systems. The former allowed her to sail on the open seas without expending coal, while the latter enabled the ship to navigate the sharp bends of the Chattahoochee and Apalachicola Rivers.


Crewed by over 100 men, the ship was powerfully armed. Her guns included a state of the art 32-pounder rifle (meaning that it fired shells weighing 32 pounds), a 9-inch gun capable of firing solid shot weighing more than 100 pounds, and four 32-pounder smoothbores. The rifle and 9-inch gun were mounted on pivots so that they could be turned and aimed in any direction. In short, the C.S.S. Chattahoochee was the most powerful warship to actually operate on the Apalachicola, Chattahoochee and Flint River system during the War Between the States.

An indication of the significance placed on the vessel by the Confederate government was the assignment of Lieutenant Catesby ap R. Jones (ap was an old term meaning “son of”) to her command. A veteran naval officer, Jones had commanded the ironclad C.S.S. Virginia (also known as the Merrimac) in her historic clash with the ironclad U.S.S. Monitor. In early 1863 he was one of the heroes of the Confederacy. Many of the other officers and men aboard the ship had also served in the clash of the ironclads at Hampton Roads, Virginia.

The design, armament and staffing of the C.S.S. Chattahoochee clearly indicates that the original plan was for her to steam down the river, break the blockade at Apalachicola Bay and then raid Union shipping in the Gulf of Mexico and beyond. In short, she was to be a Confederate raider similar to the famed C.S.S. Alabama.

Time and events conspired against this plan. The ship took longer to complete than expected and by the time she was ready for action, the Confederate army had already placed heavy obstructions in the Apalachicola River near present-day Wewahitchka. These barriers prevented Union warships from coming up the river to attack the plantations in Jackson County and beyond, but also prevented the Chattahoochee from going down to Apalachicola Bay. The warship was stranded in the river and became a defender of the Apalachicola Valley instead of a raider of the seas.

Even so, she presented an impressive site as she neared Neal’s Landing on that January day in 1863, but then something went wrong. As the ship was rounding a bend near the northeast corner of Jackson County, the current of the river drove her stern into shallow water. The rudder was damaged and the Chattahoochee began to leak. Men were ordered to the pumps to keep the vessel afloat.

The damage turned out to be serious and a steamboat was called for to tow the warship down to Chattahoochee Landing. To avoid any additional accidents, men were also put on each shore of the river to handle guide ropes to help the ship navigate additional bends in the river between Neal’s Landing and Chattahoochee. Her progress along the eastern border of Jackson County was slow, but she eventually reached her destination.

The damage from the accident would take weeks to repair. It was an inauspicious beginning for a ship that would soon be involved in the greatest naval disaster of the Civil War in Florida. To learn more about that disaster, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/csschattahoochee.

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