Sunday, May 20, 2012

May Hurricane played role in explosion aboard the CSS Chattahoochee

Wreck of the CSS Chattahoochee
The early formation of Tropical Storm Alberto of Charleston this weekend (May 19-20) is causing some discussion because hurricane season doesn't officially begin until June 1st.

May storms, however, are not all that rare. There were tropical storms or hurricanes in May of 1825, 1887 (two storms), 1908, 1944, 1948, 1951 and 1970. One that somehow missed the records of the National Hurricane Center, in fact, hit the northern Gulf Coast of Florida in 1863 and played a role in sinking both Confederate and Union warships!

The CSS Chattahoochee was the most powerful Confederate warship ever to operate in Florida waters. Rigged with three retractable masts and twin screws (each powered by independent propulsion systems to allow for rapid turning), the ship mounded a 32-pounder rifle and heavy 9-inch gun on pivots that allowed them to be fired in all directions, as well as four 32-pounders mounted in broadsides (two on each side). She was manned by a crew of more than 100 men and became operational along the lower Chattahoochee and Apalachicola Rivers in Florida during the spring of 1863.

Model of CSS Chattahoochee
In late May, Lieutenant J.J. Guthrie was in command of the Chattahoochee when news reached her home port at Chattahoochee that a Union boat party had captured a blockade runner on the lower Apalachicola. The ship set out down the Apalachicola but was delayed at Blountstown by shallow water.

On the morning of March 27, 1863, as the ship was raising steam at Blountstown, disaster struck. Through human error, water was allowed to pour into an already hot boiler. The result was a burst of super heated steam that blew out an important valve and sent scalding steam spewing across the decks of the ship. Crew members were either scalded to death or badly burned where they stood.

In the panic that ensued, fear grew that the ship's magazines might explode so her plugs were opened and she was allowed to sink to the bottom of the Apalachicola River.

Modern writers often overlook (or are not aware of) the fact that the disaster on the CSS Chattahoochee took place as the Apalachicola River Valley was being lashed by the wind and rain of a severe storm that must have been at minimum a severe tropical storm and at most a hurricane.  Eyewitness accounts of the sinking report that the ship was being swept with rain as she went down and that badly wounded men were forced to remain in the mud on the riverbank for hours until they could be evacuated upstream.

You can read more about the CSS Chattahoochee at http://www.exploresouthernhistory.com/csschattahoochee.

You can also stay updated about hurricanes and tropical storms throughout this season at http://www.exploresouthernhistory.com/tropical.


Saturday, May 12, 2012

Thomasville Civil War Prison - Real Objective of the Natural Bridge Expedition

Civil War Prison Camp Site at Thomasville, Georgia
These ditches form the outline of the historic Civil War Prison Camp in Thomasville, Georgia. It is a little known fact that this compound appears to have been the real objective of Florida's Natural Bridge expedition.

The prison camp at Thomasville was opened on December 6, 1864, when thousands of Union prisoners began arriving in the city from the Confederate prison facility at Blackshear, Georgia.  General William Tecumseh Sherman was burning a path through Georgia on this infamous March to the Sea and the Confederate military was forced to move prisoners of war from camps along his path.

Surviving Ditch at Thomasville Civil War Prison Site
The facility at Thomasville was never intended to be permanent. Southern officers impressed slaves from area plantations and formed them into work crews to build the prison. Unlike most prison camps of that era, both North and South, the one at Thomasville did not have a log stockade. Instead it was built by digging a deep, wide, ditch completely around a 5-acre site. The earth was thrown up on the outside of the ditch to form a continuous rampart. This "reverse" earthwork was then manned by guards from the Georgia Reserves and Captain Dyke's Company of the Florida Light Artillery.

Historical Marker at Prison Camp Site
The prisoners were placed inside the compound where they used rough timber to build their own shelters. Within one week or so, as many as 5,000 men were living in the prison.

The prison was used for only three weeks until the threat of a Union raid up the railroad from the Atlantic Coast to Thomasville caused Confederate authorities to march the prisoners overland to Albany, Georgia, where they were placed on rail cars and sent on to Camp Sumter at Andersonville.

Surviving Corner of Prison Camp Site
This news, however, did not travel quickly to Union commanders. Sherman had suggested that a raid inland from the Gulf of Mexico to liberate the prisoners might be a worthwhile venture and Brigadier General John Newton, commanding the Federal post at Key West, took him at his word.

Although Newton later denied that Thomasville had been his goal, newspaper reporters and even U.S. Navy officers who accompanied his expedition up the Gulf wrote that he planned to take St. Marks and Tallahassee, Florida, before crossing the Georgia border and liberating the Federal prisoners at Thomasville.

The expedition, of course, ended in disaster at the Battle of Natural Bridge. It would have ended in failure even had the Federals won that battle, though, because the prisoners from Thomasville had been gone for over two months by the time the fight at Natural Bridge took place.

To learn more about the Civil War Prison Site at Thomasville, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/thomasvilleprison.

To learn more about the Battle of Natural Bridge, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/nbindex.

My book, The Battle of Natural Bridge, Florida (Expanded Edition), is available at Amazon.com in both book and Kindle formats and through all other major bookseller websites in book form.