Civil War on the Chattahoochee River
Apalachicola became a ghost of its antebellum self as farmers and industrialists to the north began using the railroad system to ship their goods. Columbus, meanwhile, expanded its industrial production and began manufacturing many of the Confederate navy's steam engines. The overall effect of the blockade was to swiftly shift economic and military importance elsewhere for the remainder of the war.
Although the U.S. Navy never ascended the Chattahoochee River to attack the Naval Iron Works at Columbus, it held the blockade of Apalachicola successfully, thereby circumscribing Confederate movement in and out of the port. Despite this success, seamen serving in the blockade experienced the desperate boredom of their duty and recognized the marginality of their contribution to the war effort. As the war dragged on, the Union ships stationed off Apalachicola became less likely to chase blockade runners and more likely to take on refugees, Confederate deserters, and runaway slaves looking for transport out of the area.
Construction on the Chattahoochee
However, disaster and mishap struck the construction and eventual launch of the gunboat at every turn, highlighting the strong disadvantages that the Confederacy held in building and managing a navy under wartime conditions and depletions. After many delays, the long-awaited launch of the Chattahoochee took place in February 1863, but the vessel ran aground on its first day on the river and seriously damaged its hull. By the time the steamer was again ready for service, the Confederate army, feeling impatient and vulnerable to attack, had sunk obstructions into the Apalachicola River, destroying any hopes that the Chattahoochee's officers held of engaging the Union force at sea. By the spring of 1863 the Confederate navy had stationed the gunboat, now no more than a glorified floating battery, above the obstructions. On May 27, 1863, the boilers of the Chattahoochee exploded due to the crew's inexperience, killing several sailors, maiming others, and effectively destroying the ship for the remainder of the war.
During the war, the Columbus Naval Iron Works also supplied engine machinery for many of the Confederacy's ironclads. On the Chattahoochee River, the Confederacy commissioned the construction of the CSS Jackson in 1862. This ship also faced a series of setbacks and delays that prevented it from ever reaching the Union blockade. Despite a scarcity of resources, the Jackson was completed in less than a year. However, inconsistent river levels prevented its initial launch, and an ordered redesign of the paddle system cost the crew any opportunity to engage the blockaders at the mouth of the Apalachicola River.
Wilson's Raid and the Sack of Columbus
Launching the campaign from Tennessee, Wilson's raiders swept swiftly through the poorly defended cities of Alabama, and on Easter Sunday, April 16, 1865, the cavalry crossed the Broadnax Street Bridge from Girard, Alabama, into Columbus in the dark of night. By morning, the Union soldiers had captured the city and begun laying waste to its industrial capabilities, including the Columbus Naval Iron Works. Wilson's men set the Jackson aflame and adrift on the river, where it burned for nearly two weeks before sinking; navy yard workers did the same to the Chattahoochee to prevent it from falling into enemy hands. In the early 1960s both ships were raised from the riverbed. Today, visitors to the National Civil War Naval Museum at Port Columbus can view what remains of both crafts.
Barry L. Brown and Gordon R. Elwell, Crossroads of Conflict: A Guide to Civil War Sites in Georgia (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2010).
James Pickett Jones, Yankee Blitzkrieg: Wilson's Raid through Alabama and Georgia (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1976).
Maxine Turner, Navy Gray: A Story of the Confederate Navy on the Chattahoochee and Apalachicola Rivers (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1988).
David Williams, Rich Man's War: Class, Caste, and Confederate Defeat in the Lower Chattahoochee Valley (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1998).
Levi Collins, University of Georgia
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