CSS Chattahoochee: Hardluck Gunboat
The location of Columbus, on the fall line and head of navigation for the lengthy Chattahoochee-Apalachicola river system, which flows into the Gulf of Mexico, made the city strategically important in the Civil War. Mills for processing raw cotton and manufacturing textiles and the steamship trade for transportation made Columbus one of the most valuable industrial centers in the Confederacy. With the Federal navy blockading the Gulf and threatening control of the river and an attack on the city, the Confederacy took measures to secure Columbus.
In the fall of 1861 David S. Johnston received a $47,500 contract from the Confederate Navy to construct a gunboat at Saffold Landing, 175 miles south of Columbus. The remote location meant that machinery, artillery, and metal fittings had to be shipped down from Columbus, but the area had bountiful timber and steam sawmills for constructing the ship’s hull.
The gunboat, to be named Chattahoochee, was to be 130 feet long, 30 feet in the beam, and draw 10 feet of water. Engines would turn twin screws. Each broadside had two 32-pounder 6.4 inch smoothbore pieces, with a nine inch Dahlgren rifle mounted at the bow on a pivot. The Chattahoochee was to be completed in 120 days.
Unfortunately, the ship drew too much water to clear the bar into the Gulf and made journeys both upstream and downstream hazardous. Also, the river was obstructed by timber cribs, with rafts sunk on top, and a large chain was strung to catch logs and other debris to build up an impenetrable barrier. Despite these factors, the gunboat had removable masts for open sea sailing-they could be lowered for a blockade runner silhouette. Unfortunately, the Chattahoochee was never going to sea.
Construction was slow and conditions often miserable for the workforce. During the winter the hull was inundated several times by flooding, and a 50,000 ton coal supply was left coated with mud. Workers and sailors were frequently sick with fever; predictably, morale was low. At one point the crew was described as “a ragged and worthless set of men.”
The Confederate Navy eventually took control of the project and ended its contracts with Johnston. The gunboat was finally commissioned on January 1, 1863, after 15 months of construction.
The Chattahoochee was immediately ordered downstream to augment the obstructions, but the engines failed because of boiler problems. Under tow, the ship ran aground, springing leaks and destroying the rudder. Pumps kept the gunboat afloat while timber was shipped downriver for the construction of a makeshift dry dock and repairs were effected.
On April 7 the Chattahoochee reached the obstructions at Chattahoochee, Florida. The 11-man artillery crews drilled until they were proficient, but were never called upon to fight their guns.
On May 26 a party of Federal Navy raiders captured a cotton steamer downstream and the Chattahoochee readied to assist. On the following morning a steam gauge malfunctioned, leaving officers to argue over the amount of water in a heated boiler. When additional water was directed into the boiler, it exploded. Sixteen sailors were immediately scalded to death, another died later, and six men were injured. Fearing that the magazine, located mere feet from the boiler, would also explode, panicked sailors jumped overboard; one report states that three men drowned. To avoid destruction should the magazine ignite, the ship was flooded and sank.
The Chattahoochee was raised and towed to Columbus for repairs. En route, it grounded below the city and broke a propeller. Reconstruction of the gunboat lagged while boilers were procured.
As Union troopers stormed the Chattahoochee River bridges into Columbus on April 16, 1865, the crew of the Chattahoochee doused her with 10 barrels of kerosene, set slow matches, and made their escape. The ship, aflame from stem to stern, floated 12 miles downriver, grounding at Race Pass, and sank. A century later parts of the Chattahoochee were raised and brought to Columbus, where they are displayed at the National Civil War Naval Museum at Port Columbus. A visit to the museum is strongly encouraged.
The 17 Confederate dead are buried beneath a granite monument, featuring an engraving of the ship, in Chattahoochee, Florida, just off U.S. 90 at the Florida State Hospital.
For further information on the Chattahoochee and Confederate naval operations at Columbus and along the Chattahoochee-Apalachicola, read Navy Gray by Maxine Turner.
Jim Miles is the author of nine books about the Civil War and two Weird Georgia books. See Jim’s books.