Chasing Shadows: Early hurricane doomed USS Amanda
By the late spring of 1863, Apalachicola’s seaborne trade had been cut off by the Union blockade for nearly two years. With the rapid growth of the Federal Navy, the original single vessel on blockade duty off the port had been replaced with a squadron of ships dispersed to guard every entrance to the bay.
In May 1863, five blockading vessels were on duty off of Apalachicola Bay: the U.S.S. Amanda and U.S.S. Hendrick Hudson, at East Pass, and the U.S.S. Somerset, U.S.S. Port Royal and U.S.S. Brockenborough, at West Pass. The Amanda and Brockenborough were sailing vessels, the Port Royal and the Somerset sidewheel steamers, while the Hendrick Hudson was propelled by a screw propeller.
Only the Port Royal had been built as a warship. Both the Hendrick Hudson and the Brockenborough had been captured earlier by the Union Navy and converted into warships. The Amanda and the Somerset were purchased early in the war and outfitted as warships.
The Amanda was a 117-foot long sailing bark built in New York seven years earlier for the merchant trade. She was purchased by the Navy in August 1861, and armed with six 32-pounder cannons, one 20-pounder rifled gun and one 12-pounder howitzer. Her crew consisted of 71 men.
The captain of the Amanda
George Edwin Welch was the captain of the Amanda. Born in Massachusetts in 1817, he took to the sea, based out of Brooklyn, New York, where his wife and three children lived. With the beginning of the Civil War he volunteered, was appointed as acting volunteer lieutenant and assigned to the U.S.S. Kittatinny. He resigned in April 1862 after he felt the charges he brought against the assistant surgeon on board his ship were not handled properly. Rejoining the Navy in July, he was again appointed as acting volunteer lieutenant and ordered to Key West to assume command of the Amanda.
With Apalachicola deserted by the Confederates, there was little activity to occupy the Northern sailors. Occasionally they captured a schooner loading cotton in one of the local creeks in preparation to running the blockade, or raided one of the saltworks that operated along the coast. But the usual routine was endless watching and waiting for something to happen. The Union sailors occupied their time gathering shells and exploring the deserted islands, and with amateur theatrics. Their officers paid social calls between ships, and hosted families who fled to the blockading vessels from Apalachicola.
Even though the Confederate Navy did not represent a serious threat to the blockade off Apalachicola, duty on the ships was not always safe. Storms were always a hazard to be contended with at sea.
In late May 1863, the barometer began to drop and the wind began to pick up at Apalachicola. On May 25, the wind began to blow from the northeast, and the next day it increased in force. By May 27 it was blowing a gale. Lt. Welch ordered some of the light spars on the masts taken down, and the anchor chains played out in preparation of the storm.
That evening the wind reached hurricane force. On May 28, 1863, an unprecedented hurricane made landfall in northwest Florida - the only landfalling hurricane now recorded in American history in the month of May.
The final death totals from the storm in Florida would appear to be at least 72 lives - 40 in the St. Marks area and the other 32 farther west at Goose Creek and Dickerson Bay. Newspaper accounts of the day reported that the saltworks near St. Marks and Bayport were entirely destroyed. Large quantities of the salt were lost and 40 persons were drowned. The gale was said to be so strong as to have pushed the waters of the Gulf inland for several miles back into the country, inundating parts of the St. Marks railroad.
The Amanda was anchored behind Dog Island in Pilot Cove. About midnight a portion of the bow gave way and the ship began to drag its anchor. With a crash the Amanda grounded stern first on the west end of Dog Island. With the shrieking wind and the pounding waves it was impossible to give or hear orders.
Welch ordered the crew to seek shelter under the poop deck. Some of the crew suggested cutting away the masts to free the vessel from excessive top weight, but Welch refused, thinking that if the Amanda sank in the shoal water of East Pass the masts and rigging would provide a possible refuge for the crew.
At 4:20 a.m. on the morning of May 28, the wind shifted to southeast, pushing the Amanda off of Dog Island and toward the mainland. She struck shore east of Topsail Bluff, ending up a mile east of the bluff, broadside to shore, with her bow facing east, approximately 200 yards offshore on an even keel.
Elsewhere the U.S.S. Brockenborough was driven aground and wrecked on St. Vincent Island, and a schooner delivering coal, the Andrew Manderson, was driven ashore on Sand Island, the detached western end of St. George Island. The three steamers in the blockading fleet only managed to avoid being wrecked by using their engines.
By noon on May 28, the weather was abating and the Hendrick Hudson could be seen from the Amanda still holding her station at East Pass. A series of signals passed between the vessels and Lt. Welch sent a boat to communicate with it. On the morning of May 29 the seas were calm and Welch commenced evacuating the stores and supplies from the Amanda with the assistance of boats from the Hendrick Hudson. Due to the shallow water, the Hendrick Hudson could not anchor closer than two miles from the Amanda, which slowed down the evacuation.
Around the middle of the afternoon on May 29, there was a report Confederate troops were seen approaching. An hour later Welch claimed he could discern men moving in the undergrowth opposite the Amanda. Activity was also reported on top of Topsail Bluff. Lt. Welch ordered the guns of his port battery to rake the shore. The guns of the Hendrick Hudson joined in, but she was so far offshore they did not have the range to shell the shore.
Fearing the enemy would overwhelm and capture the Amanda, Lt. Welch determined to abandon and destroy the ship. All the men were evacuated to the Hendrick Hudson. Live shells were placed around the deck of the Amanda to discourage boarders from attempting to put out the fire, and the ship was set on fire. It burned until the fire reached the magazine between 10 and 11 p.m. when the Amanda blew up with an ear-splitting explosion.
With two crews aboard, the Hendrick Hudson was overcrowded and conflicts were inevitable. Evidence suggests Lt. Welch and Lt. David Cate, commanding the Hendrick Hudson, were not on the best of terms prior to the storm. Some of the sailors from the Amanda refused to obey orders from the Hendrick Hudson’s officers, saying they would only obey their own officers. To relieve overcrowding and reduce tensions, the crew of the Amanda was put ashore on Dog Island to make camp until they could be transported to Key West.
Little was left of the Amanda after the explosion except the bottom portion of the hull. Crews were put to work to salvage everything useful from the wreck. The guns were recovered along with all the chain, shot, and ironwork that could be found. The yellow metal covering the hull to protect it from worms was stripped off, many of the sailors getting cut and bruised in the process. Nothing was left on the wreck that could be of use to the enemy.
Navy convenes a court of inquiry
With the wreck of the Amanda the U. S. Navy convened a court of inquiry to examine the circumstances into the loss and determine if any blame for the loss should be attached to any naval personnel. The court met at 10 a.m. on June 10, 1863, onboard the U.S.S. Magnolia at Key West.
After six days of testimony from 19 witnesses, the court issued its findings. It was concluded there was ample evidence of the approaching hurricane, and Lt. Welch did not take all the precautions he could have to prepare for the storm. He did not send down all the yards, masts and rigging he could have, nor did he play out all the anchor chain onboard. Even if these precautions had been taken, the court was unsure if the ship could have been saved from beaching due to the violence of the storm.
More serious was Lt. Welch’s hasty decision to abandon and destroy the Amanda. He was the only one on the vessel that testified to seeing rebel soldiers in the woods on the mainland. He was also the only one who claimed the Southern soldiers were bringing artillery to bear on the grounded ship. Lt. Cate was censured as the senior officer present, for not giving more direction and consul to Lt. Welch.
Both officers were sent north with orders to report to the Navy Department. They both escaped being dismissed from the service and were returned to duty. Lt. Welch was assigned to command of various ships in the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron before being honorably discharged on Sept. 13, 1865. He applied for a pension two years later, based on an illness he contracted while in service. He died in Brooklyn, New York on April 13, 1869.
Lt. Cate also returned to service. He received command of the U.S.S. Arkansas in the West Gulf Blockading Squadron but died of dysentery aboard the vessel near New Orleans on May 4, 1865.
The location of the last resting place of the Amanda is not certain. Testimony at the court of inquiry placed the grounded bark anywhere from 80 to 300 yards from shore, and from 600 yards to one-and-one-half miles east of Topsail Bluff, located just to the east of Yent’s Bayou. Since the Union Navy salvaged all of the metal they could from the wreck, there is probably very little remaining to identify the site.
Mark Curenton is a former president of the Apalachicola Area Historical Society. He can be reached at email@example.com