Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Great Hurricane of 1863 at Apalachicola & St. Marks

Gulf of Mexico from St. George Island
In previous posts I have mentioned the sinking of the gunboat CSS Chattahoochee at Blountstown during a severe storm on May 27, 1863.
What seems to have been an early hurricane struck the northern Gulf Coast that day, not only contributing to the sinking of the Chattahoochee but also driving two Union blockade vessels ashore near Apalachicola. I've been aware of this storm for some time, but recent research has revealed new details that show it was far worse than I had ever realized.

On June 8, 1863, for example, the Richmond Daily Dispatch carried a brief early report on the severity of the storm:

Fort St. Marks or San Marcos de Apalache
Where the water rose "five feet deep."
...There was a very heavy gale and rain in Florida during the week ending the 29th. At Newport the town was four feet deep. The salt works near there were drowned out. One white boy, seven negroes, thirty five mules and eight oxen were drowned. The water in Fort St. Marks was five feet deep, and the troops had to signal the steamer Spray for assistance. - The river rose to a very great height at St. Marks, and the entire town was flooded, doing much damage. One regiment of artillery and one of infantry, in camp between Tallahassee and St. Marks, lost all their tents and fixtures.

Cape St. George Lighthouse
Other newspapers across the South also carried coverage of the storm. The editor of the Tallahassee Floridian wrote to Macon's Weekly Telegraph on May 30, 1863, reporting even higher human losses:

...We have had a heavy blow here the past week - the heaviest I ever witnessed in Florida at this season of the year. From the coast there are various rumors of loss of life and property. I have just heard that from the Ocklockonnee to Peurifoy's Landing, twenty-one bodies of persons drowned were recovered on Friday, and eleven from Goose Creek, making thirty-two.

The surge from the storm apparently reached several miles inland in the St. Marks area. Additional detail appeared in the Columbus (GA) Times on June 3:

...We learn that on last Wednesday and Thursday, a most terrific gale swept along the south coast of Florida, destroying the entire Salt Works near St. Marks and Bay Port, large quantities of salt, and drowning some forty white men and negroes. So strong was the gale the water from the gulf was driven out of its banks along the line of the St. Marks railroad, completely inundating the track for several miles back into the country.

The newspaper writer went on to express hope that "some portion of the shipping of the United States was caught in the gale, and driven ashore." His hopes were realized. The following account datelined Key West on June 12, 1863, appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer six days later:

Indian Pass and the Gulf of Mexico
...A very severe gale occurred at Apalachicola, Fla., a few days since, during which two of our vessels were wrecked at the entrance to that harbor and totally lost. The steamer Hendrick Hudson, Captain Cate, has just arrived from there, and from Captain Cate I learn these particulars: - That the gun-boat barque Amanda being at anchor at her usual station, broke loose from her moorings and drifted across the bay to the mainland in spite of all their efforts to save her. Being unable to get her off, she was stripped and blown up to keep her from the Rebels. No lives lost. The barquentine Andrew Manderson being there with a load of coal for supplying naval vessels, was also driven ashore and her masts, spars, sails and rigging were entirely swept clean from her deck by the violence of the gale. She is a total loss. The gun-boat Fort Henry was driven to sea and weathered the storm.

USS Port Royal (Center) as sketched during the war.
The USS Amanda was on station off East Pass near St. George Island when the storm hit. She was driven ashore on the mainland where parts of her wreck remain buried in the sand today.The USS Andrew Manderson was at the other end of St. George Island where damage was even greater. The New York Herald carried a letter from the USS Port Royal dated May 23 on June 20, 1863:

...At West pass the damage by the gale was also considerable. The barkentine Andrew Manderson, of Philadelphia, loaded with coal for the squadron, ran ashore on Sand Island. Her masts were cut away after she struck. Several small prize vessels lying at anchor inside the pass were driven to sea or sank at their moorings. The United States gunsloop Brockenborough broke from her moorings and was run on shore at St. Vincent's Island. She will be saved. The Port Royal and Somerset rode the gale out without damage.

A letter dated Thomasville, Georgia, on May 31, 1863, appeared in the Macon Weekly Telegraph four days later:

The gale of Thursday is said to have done much mischief among the salt boilers on the Florida coast - One report says 150 lives were lost - many animals, much stock and salt. Hope it is not so bad - some, though, have certainly perished.

The storm must have been a hurricane, even though hurricane researchers do not list a May storm in their data for 1863. The total number of lives lost will never be known. If the figure of 150 given by the Thomasville writer was accurate, then the storm should be ranked as the 22nd deadliest hurricane ever to hit the U.S. (or in this case, the C.S.) coast. Hurricane Andrew, by comparison, claimed 61 lives.
CSS Chattahoochee Monument
If the Tallahassee editor's estimate of 32 lives lost along just part of the affected coast is accurate, which it probably was, then the death toll from the storm must have been enormous. When the 17 men who lost their lives in the sinking of the CSS Chattahoochee are added to that tally, the total number rises to 49 exclusive of deaths elsewhere along the coast or on the prize vessels reported lost off the West Pass of Apalachicola Bay.

Read more about the sinking of the CSS Chattahoochee during the storm of May 27, 1863, at


RoadDog said...

Just another example of how deep, or, in this case, wet, your research goes.

Just one more thing blockaders had to contend with.

Keep up the good work.

Savez said...

Great stuff! And another contemporary reference to the Spray ! Sure wish that ship's log existed. In the way she was surrendered I think there is a log out there somewhere. Probably in some obscure, Yankee nautical historical society.

Dora said...

Love reading the history of this part of the country. Thank you.

Dale Cox said...

Thank you, Dora! I'm glad you enjoy it.