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.


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