Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Confederate Engineers permanently changed the course of the Apalachicola River

Lower Apalachicola River
I've always been fascinated by the fact that Confederate engineers, assigned to obstruct the Apalachicola River to prevent the Union navy from coming upstream, did the job so effectively that the actual course of the river was permanently changed by their work.

After the Confederate army withdrew from the city of Apalachicola in March of 1862, heavy artillery was first emplaced at Ricco's Bluff in Liberty County to prevent Union warships from using the river to lay waste to the vast plantation country of Jackson and Gadsden Counties in Florida, as well as all of Southwest Georgia and Southeast Alabama. This position it was soon decided was too far upstream and too easy to flank so a decision was made to build defenses at a better location between Ricco's and the Gulf.

The Narrows from Above
After reviewing several locations, military engineers settled on the Narrows, so named because it was a place where the Apalachicola River passed through a series of sharp, narrow curves near present-day Wewahitchka. It was such a swampy area, however, that it was necessary to build massive mounds of earth to serve as platforms for artillery positions in order to keep the guns out of the water when the river overflowed its banks, something that it did on a regular basis.

In addition, a line of obstructions was dropped into the river from one bank to the other to prevent boats of any kind from being able to pass the batteries. These obstructions soon collected such a mass of driftwood that a huge raft of debris covered the surface of the river from one side to the other. Soldiers mentioned that they could walk back and forth across the Apalachicola River on this debris without even getting their feet wet.

The obstructions were eventually swept away in part by a flood of the river, but so effective had they proved in blocking the Apalachicola, that it started to seek a new outlet. Pushing through a narrow creek and slough, the rushing water soon bypassed the site entirely. A U.S. Army engineer, who visited the site in 1871, described the result as follows:

…There is also to be mentioned at this place Bryan’s Cut-off, commonly called the “Slough,” in the Lower Apalachicola River, thirty miles above Apalachicola, which is actually the most dangerous place between Eufaula and Apalachicola, and needs improvement no less than the Euchee Rapids. The cut-off was formed in consequence of obstructions erected by the confederates in Virginia Bend.
It is at present 80 to 120 feet wide, extremely rapid and crooked, full of dangerous snags, and becoming worse and more crooked every year. The land on both sides is swampy, with dense timber, nearly constantly overflowed.

The description was incorporated into an 1872 report of the Secretary of War to Congress. The government ultimately widened the new channel, allowing the river a smoother transition to its new channel. The original obstructions and channel was soon silted in and the Confederate battery sites at the Narrows now sit deep in the swamp, far back from the river.

The site is generally inaccessible, but a great place to learn more about the Confederate defenses built along the Apalachicola River is Torreya State Park north of Bristol. The preserved earthworks of a battery can be visited there and park staff can provide additional information. For more information, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/torreyabattery.

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