Saturday, August 27, 2011

A Conscript Survives the Explosion of the C.S.S. Chattahoochee


Stern of the C.S.S. Chattahoochee
On the morning of June 8, 1863, a Confederate deserterer named J.C. Cook came aboard the blockade vessel U.S.S. Port Royal off Apalachicola, Florida, with news that disaster had overtaken the Confederate warship C.S.S. Chattahoochee.
Built at Saffold in Southwest Georgia, the heavily armed Chattahoochee was commissioned on January 1, 1863, with a crew that included a number of officers and men who had served aboard the famed Southern ironclad C.S.S. Virginia (formerly the Merrimac) during its famed battle with the Union ironclad U.S.S. Monitor at Hampton Roads, Virginia.

Model of the C.S.S. Chattahoochee
Despite numerous delays that had plagued its construction and months spent repairing hull damage sustained on her maiden voyage down to Chattahoochee, the warship by May of 1863 had become the most powerful Confederate warship ever to operate in Florida. Armed with six heavy guns and manned by a crew of more than 100 men, the Chattahoochee was an impressive accomplishment.

On May 27th of that year, however, the ship became involved in a deadly calamity when an engineering accident led to an explosion. Scalding steam killed men where they stood, frightfully maiming many others. Among the men who survived without injury was J.C. Cook:

Hull of the C.S.S. Chattahoochee
At 12 m. on said day she was lying at anchor at Blountstown Bar with steam up, ready to run back to the town of Chattahoochee, from which place she had come the day previous. The men were at dinner, when suddenly she exploded, killing 18 men and wounding badly some 10 or 12 others, also some slightly. She sank that afternoon. Among the killed were three engineers, viz, Messrs. Fagan, Hodges, and Arents; one midshipman, Mr. Mallory; the purser’s clerk, and pilot. The exact cause of the explosion he does not know, but says that the chief engineer, who was carried on shore by him and some others of the crew, and who survived some three or four hours, said that the cause was by there being no water in the boilers, and that the donkey engine was just then started to fill them when the accident occurred. - Lieutenant Commander George Morris, U.S.Navy.

Monument at Grave Site in Chattahoochee
Cook, a conscripted cook aboard the ship, told of how the steamboat William H. Young came down from Chattahoochee and evacuated the dead and wounded. The men killed in the explosion were buried in Chattahoochee and the wounded carried up to Columbus, Georgia, for treatment. Some of them died there in the coming days and weeks.

The wreck and horrible scenes he witnessed after the explosion were enough for J.C. Cook. He deserted and started for Apalachicola:

Wreck of C.S.S. Chattahoochee
He remained in Chattahoochee until the evening of June 5, when he took to the woods with a determination and express purpose of reaching the blockade if possible. At 1 p.m. last Saturday he arrived at Rickoe’s Bluff , from whence by land he proceeded to Canida Creek, at which place he reached on the 6th instant, when he got a canoe and came to Apalachicola at 11 p.m. Here he visited a friend and got some clothing. At midnight he left Apalachicola and came direct to this vessel.

The damage to the Chattahoochee proved not to be as severe as initially thought and the ship was soon raised and towed upriver. By the end of the war, she was once again operational, but was burned by her own crew following the fall of Columbus. Her stern section can be seen today at the National Civil War Naval Museum in Columbus.

To learn more about the explosion aboard the Chattahoochee, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/csschattahoochee.

To learn more about the National Civil War Naval Museum, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/navymuseum.