Tuesday, August 14, 2012

A Tale of Two Powder Magazines

Old Powder Magazine in Baton Rouge, Louisiana
The Magazine in Chattahoochee was Almost Identical.
During the antebellum era, two almost identical structures were built by the U.S. Army, one in Chattahoochee, Florida, and the other in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Both were part of important U.S. Arsenal complexes and both served as powder magazines for the storage of large amounts of gunpowder. The one at Chattahoochee was part of the Apalachicola Arsenal (named for the river and not the city) and the one in Louisiana was part of the Baton Rouge Arsenal & Ordnance Depot.

Old Powder Magazine
Chattahoochee, Florida
Both structures still stand today, although the one in Florida has been altered somewhat from its original form. The one in Baton Rouge, however, has been beautifully restored and provides visitors with a unique opportunity to see the original appearance of both of the old magazines.

The gunpowder magazines are often incorrectly viewed as being the "old arsenal" in both locations, but in reality there were only small parts of much larger military complexes. The Apalachicola Arsenal at Chattahoochee, for example, included an array of buildings grouped around a 4-acre parade ground, all connected and surrounded by a brick wall that measured 30 inches thick and 9 feet high. It was an important supply depot during the Second Seminole War of 1835-1842.

Restored Powder Magazine in Baton Rouge
In Baton Rouge, the Arsenal & Ordnance Depot was the largest facility of its type in the Old Southwest and also featured an array of other buildings including barracks, officers' quarters, an armory, workshops, storage facilities, etc. It was the primary source of supplies and munitions for the U.S. Armies of Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott during the Mexican War of 1846-1848.

The magazines at both arsenals were actually outbuildings from the main complexes of the posts. This was for the obvious reason that large quantities of gunpowder can be extremely dangerous. At arsenal facilities, it was common for the magazines to be located far enough away from the main buildings so that damage would be minimized in the event of an accidental explosion.

Arsenal Officer's Quarters in Chattahoochee
Both arsenals played important rolls in the beginning days of the War Between the States. The Apalachicola Arsenal at Chattahoochee was the first U.S. military installation in Florida to be seized by state troops in 1861. The Quincy Young Guards led by Captain William Gunn seized the arsenal from its small group of U.S. Army caretakers on the morning of January 6, 1861, four days before Florida seceded from the Union.

There was a brief standoff between Captain Gunn and Ordnance Sergeant Edwin Powell over possession of the keys to the magazine. It was only when Gunn threatened to use violence that Powell and his small garrison of three men surrendered and delivered up the keys.

State troops in Louisiana, meanwhile, seized the arsenal in Baton Rouge on January 10, 1861, the same day that Florida left the Union and well before the secession of the Pelican State.

Arsenal Barracks in Baton Rouge
It is remarkable today that both magazines still stand, even though most of the other arsenal buildings in both Chattahoochee and Baton Rouge have long since disappeared. In Baton Rouge, only the magazine and barracks survive, while in Chattahoochee only the magazine, officer's quarters and guard house still stand.

Both complexes did play important roles in civilian society after the war. The arsenal at Chattahoochee was turned over to the State of Florida and served first as a prison and then as a state mental hospital, a role it continues to serve today as the Florida State Hospital. The arsenal in Baton Rouge served for many years as the campus of Louisiana State University.

Both of the old magazines can still be seen today. The one in Florida is on the campus of Florida State Hospital and can be viewed from the outside but is not open to the public. Some stabilization work has been done and future restoration plans have been discussed. The roof now extends all the way out to the perimeter wall, but at the time it was in use by the military it looked like the facility in Baton Rouge.

The magazine in Baton Rouge has been restored and now houses the Old Arsenal Museum. The beautiful facility interprets the history of the Baton Rouge Arsenal and the 1862 Battle of Baton Rouge. It is located directly across the street from the State Capitol.

To learn more about both arsenals, please follow these links:

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