Two Yankee Gunboats at Our Landing! The Federal gunboat raid on Florence, Alabama in February 1862

Lieutenant Seth Ledyard Phelps of Ohio


The breathless headlines in the February 12, 1862 issue of the Florence Gazette told the tale:

Citizens Leaving!
Three steamboats burnt! Two others sunk!
Two Yankee Gunboats at Our Landing!

Following the successful Federal gunboat assault that compelled the surrender of Fort Henry on February 6, 1862, three timberclad gunboats (the Tyler, Conestoga, and Lexington) under the command of Lieutenant Seth Ledyard Phelps of Ohio ascended the Tennessee River. Their mission, as described by Phelps’ brother Alfred who was Paymaster aboard the Conestoga, was “to proceed up the river in search of Rebel steamers and gunboats and go as far as he thought discreet and proper to go. We had great difficulty in opening the draw to the splendid railroad bridge that crossed the river 25 miles above Fort Henry,” he wrote. There were three or four steamers three miles upstream and when they had passed they had, in their great haste no doubt, forgot to leave the tools to turn it with.” The squadron prompted several Southern steamboat captains to beach their ships and set them afire. “One of them contained a large amount of powder which exploded when we were within 1,000 yards with great force, the concussion being sufficient to break all the fastenings on the doors of the Conestoga,” Alfred Phelps wrote. “It felt to those on board as if it picked the vessel up and hurled it down in the water.”
 
U.S.S. Conestoga- a Florence resident described the Conestoga and Lexington as "the black, ugly things, wrapped as they were in the habiliments of death and mourning well represent the principle upon which this unholy war is waged."
Later that day, the squadron came across the Confederate gunboat Eastport under construction at Cerro Gordo and captured it. The gunboat was “undergoing the process of casemating, nearly everything being on board and at hand to complete her with the exception of her armament,” Paymaster Phelps wrote. His brother directed the Tyler to remain behind to secure this prize and continued with the other two gunboats up the river.


On the morning of February 8th, Phelps’ squadron overtook and captured two steamers (the Sallie Wood and Muscle) near the Mississippi state line and proceeded upriver towards the termination of navigable waters at Muscle Shoals. [Muscle Shoals gained its name from the large accumulation of mussels that had built up there over many years; local residents named it “Muscle” Shoals when they more properly meant to name it “Mussel Shoals,” but the name Muscle Shoals has stuck.]

Map of northern Alabama showing the "Shoals" area: Florence on the north shore connected by a railroad bridge across the Tennessee River to the strategic Memphis & Charleston Railroad which passed through Tuscumbia on the south shore. The cities of Sheffield and Muscle Shoals were incorporated long after the Civil War. 

Heavy rains swelled the Tennessee River and made passage upriver a battle for Phelps’ vessels. “We entered the state of Alabama and ascended to Florence,” wrote Lieutenant Phelps. “On coming in sight of the town, three steamers were discovered which were immediately set on fire by the Rebels.”

To the citizens of Florence, the arrival of Phelps’ squadron came as a terrible shock. “Our citizens were thrown into the utmost state of excitement by the appearance of two Yankee gunboats. The black, ugly things, wrapped as they were in the habiliments of death and mourning [a reference to their black iron sheething] well represent the principle upon which this unholy war is waged,” wrote S.G. Barr, editor of the Florence Gazette. “When it was certainly known that the gunboats were coming, a good many of our citizens took their movable goods and went to the country for safety. Some reported that 10,000 Yankees were in town, some 20,000, and claimed that they were destroying everything before them. One fellow affirmed that he saw 27 gunboats land here with his own eyes. That is the way such rumors get afloat,” Barr opined. “Suffice it to say, the gunboats lay at our wharf about three hours and then retired.”

U.S.S. Tyler missed out on the expedition to Florence- it remained at Cerro Gordo, Tennessee guarding the captured prize Confederate gunboat the Eastport. 

The crews of the two steamboats docked in Florence immediately set fire to their ships upon seeing Phelps’ timberclads round the bend. “The torch was applied to the combustible material and soon one of the most sublime scenes that has ever been witnessed by our citizens was exhibited. The steamers were now wrapped in curling flames,” wrote Barr. Across the river, the steamer Julia H. Smith was set afire and with her engines churning, set adrift down the Tennessee, narrowly missing one of the gunboats. “The Kirkman and Time were nearly consumed when the Federals landed below them [in Florence] and all three steamers floated down the river,” Barr stated. The Time had over $100,000 of government stores on board and would have made a rich prize, indeed.

Phelps docked his two vessels and, as Barr wrote, “the soil of north Alabama was desecrated by the tread of our invading foe.” Phelps directed his men to search nearby warehouses and seize any government property discovered. “Considerable quantities of supplies marked Fort Henry were secured from the burning wrecks. Some had been landed and stored. These I seized, putting such as we could bring away on board our vessels and destroying the remainder,” Lieutenant Phelps wrote. Barr agreed: “Private property was respected.” Paymaster Phelps reported that the expedition seized “five hogsheads of sugar and a large amount of salt beef.”
 
U.S.S. Lexington
A deputation of Florence citizens began a parley with Lieutenant Phelps. “A courteous interview took place,” Barr wrote. This courtesy perhaps came as yet another surprise to the citizenry as, it was reported by Paymaster Phelps, the fleeing Rebels “told horrible stories of the violence, rapine, murder, and ravishing that the Yankees were perpetuating wherever they came.”

Phelps continued: “A deputation of citizens of Florence waited upon me, first desiring that they might be made able to quiet the fears of their wives and daughters with assurances from me that they would not be molested; and, secondly, praying that I would not destroy their railroad bridge. As for the first I told them we were neither ruffians nor savages, and that we were there to protect them from violence and to enforce the law; and with reference to the second, that if the bridge were away, we could ascend no higher, and as it could possess (so far as I saw) no military importance, as it simply connected Florence itself with the railroad on the south bank of the river. (This was the strategic Memphis & Charleston Railroad that passed through Tuscumbia on the south side of the Tennessee River).  

“Soon after the sable shades of night were drawn over this sad spectacle, the cables were loosed and the demons of an abused power went steaming down the river,” wrote Barr, obviously relieved at the removal of the odious presence of the Yankee gunboats. “We hope the noble example of the masters and owners of the burnt steamers will be followed by our planters and rather than a bale of cotton should fall into the hands of the foe, that they themselves will apply the torch to the last bale of cotton in the Tennessee Valley.”

The Civil War had come to the Tennessee Valley, and would arrive in considerably more force in the days to come. Florence itself would change hands more than 40 times during the Civil War, with the first Federal troops arriving in April 1862.

Sources:
Letter from Paymaster Alfred Phelps, The Jeffersonian Democrat (Chardon, Ohio), February 28, 1862, pg. 1
“Great Excitement in Florence,” Florence (Alabama) Gazette, February 12, 1862, pg. 2
Jones, Robert C. Alabama and the Civil War. Charleston: The History Press, 2017, pgs. 80-82

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