The History Corner

Photo Credit: Ben Tate

November 2016

The Civil War Gunboat Battle at the Florence Landing and the Sinking of the Confederate Gunboat C. S. S. Dunbar in Cypress Creek
By Lee Freeman, Local History/Genealogy Dept. Florence-Lauderdale Public Library and TVHS Board Member.
Most locals know the story of how Gunwaleford Road in Lauderdale County got its name. According to the story it got its name after a gunboat sank up to the gunwales in Cypress Creek during the Civil War. But is this story about the naming of the road true? Evidence suggests that it might not be. But a gunboat did sink in Cypress Creek during the Civil War. Below is the story.
Saturday February 8, 1862, just two days after the Battle of Fort Henry, in which this Confederate fort on the Tennessee River in Kentucky surrendered to Union forces, residents of Florence, Alabama saw a bit of action involving gunboats that had been involved in the siege of the fort.
A headline in the Florence Gazette of Wednesday morning, February 12, 1862, stated: “Great Excitement in Florence! Citizens Leaving! Three Steamboats Burnt. Two Others Sunk! Two Yankee Gunboats at our Landing! Three or Four shots fired. But ‘Nobody Hurt.’” [1]
Editor Silas G. Barr reported that “On Saturday last, our citizens were thrown into the utmost state of excitement, by the appearance of two Yankee Gun Boats, which were seen from an eminent position overlooking the river for many miles down its nearly straight current.” The two gunboats were the U. S. S. Lexington, Lt.-Commander James W. Shirk commanding, and the U. S. S. Conestoga, commanded by Lt.-Commander S. L. Phelps. These ships had participated in the shelling of Confederate Ft. Henry two days earlier.
The Conestoga and Lexington, together with a third gunboat, the Tyler, commanded by Lt.-Commander William Gwin, upon the surrender of Ft. Henry steamed down the Tennessee River, stopping at Cerro Gordo, in Hardin County, Tennessee the night of the 7th. According to Lt.-Commander Phelps of the Connestoga in a report dated Feb. 10, 1862, they discovered the Confederate steamship Eastport being converted into a gunboat. They quickly captured the Eastport, with Phelps leaving Gwin and the Tyler to guard it and then continued with the Lexington downriver to Florence. Soon after daylight on the 8th the Union gunships passed Eastport, Mississippi, then Chickasaw (Riverton, then in Franklin, now in Colbert, County), Alabama, where they seized two Confederate steamers, the Sallie Wood and the Muscle. The Sallie Wood was laid up in the harbor and the Muscle was loaded with iron destined for Richmond. [2]
Proceeding up to Florence, the Union convoy discovered three steamers lying at anchor at the Florence wharf. The Gazette editor described the Union gunboats as “black, ugly things, wraped [sic] as they were, in the habiliments of death, and mourning.” The Union ships immediately set their sights on the Confederate steamers, which were the Julia H. Smith, the Kirksman (another source names this ship the Sam Kirkman) and the Time. The Time, owned by Capt. William A. Johnson (1827-1891), who would go on to serve heroically in the 4th AL Cav., CSA, had on board nearly $100,000 worth of Confederate supplies destined for Fort Henry, however the three Confederate steamers were quickly set on fire and their cargo destroyed lest the Union ships capture them. The Union gunboats were then fired on by an unseen enemy from the opposite bank of the river and immediately returned fire. Editor Barr reported that a shot allegedly struck the Memphis & Charleston Railroad Bridge, but as he was a quarter of a mile away at the time he couldn’t confirm that report. [3] Barr also reported that as soon as Florentines sighted the Union gunboats chugging up the river people panicked and began fleeing to the county. [4]
Lt. Commander Phelps then landed a squad of men and they managed to save a large part of the cargo from the burning ships; they also captured a large part of the cargo that had already been stored in a warehouse at the wharf. Phelps had as much of this cargo as the Conestoga could hold loaded aboard his ship. Included among this cargo was iron plating intended for the Eastport in Hardin County, that Phelps had captured the previous day. [5]
A deputation of citizens of Florence soon came out to meet Lt.-Comdr Phelps, to ask him not to harm their wives and daughters or to damage the railroad bridge, to which Phelps responded that he and his men were there to protect the citizens from such violence and to enforce the law. As for the bridge, Phelps thought it had no military importance, hence would not do anything to it (ironically the bridge would be burnt by Confederate forces later that year so Union forces couldn’t use it).[6]
Phelps reported to his superiors that when he left Florence there were still two Confederate gunboats on the river which were doubtless lying hidden in one of the small creeks, but he was confident they would soon be captured as well. According to editor Barr these two ships were the Robb (the Alfred Robb) and the Dunbar commanded by a Capt. Fowler. [7]
The Dunbar was built in 1859 at Pittsburgh by a Mr. John S. Pringle. The 213 ton side-wheel steamer was later sold to the U. S. Navy but shortly after the war started was captured by the Confederate Navy.[8] In company with the steamer Lynn Boyd the Dunbar was dispatched to embark two regiments of Confederate troops at Paris Landing, Tenn. on February 4, 1862.
According to editor Barr the steamer Dunbar had been chased to the Florence landing by the Conestoga and Lexington and the ship then steamed up Cypress Creek to hide. Barr reported that the ship got stuck on a sand bar and was then scuttled. According to Barr, she was lying in fifteen or twenty feet of water “at the Gundle Ford.”[9] Exactly where on Cypress Creek the “Gundle Ford” was we don’t know, but this reference by Silas Barr to it does seem to put to rest the theory that Gunwaleford Road was named after the Dunbar’s sinking because the ship’s gunwales could be seen showing above the water. “Gunwaleford” is most likely simply a corruption of “Gundle Ford.” It’s easy to see how later residents, mispronouncing “Gundle Ford” and remembering the gunboat which sank would assume the road got its name from the sunken Dunbar.
According to editor Barr either the Confederate ship Robb or the Union ship Samuel Orr (used as a hospital ship at Ft. Henry) was also scuttled in Cypress Creek. A report on April 23, 1863 by Lt.-Cmdr. Gwin of the U. S. S. Tyler confirms that it was the Robb that was reported scuttled however in his report he states that he had captured the Alfred Robb two days earlier, on April. 21, at Florence, and that it had not been sunk as reported. The U. S. Navy then put the Alfred Robb back into service as a Union ship and briefly changed her named to Lady Foote before changing it back to Alfred Robb. Lt.-Cmdr. Gwin’s report also reported that, as she couldn’t be salvaged, his “burning the Dunbar, which had been used as a gunboat previous to the fall of Fort Henry.” [10] This is important as in January of 1863 unconfirmed reports “by a man just from Florence, Ala.” held that “Roddey has raised the steamboat Dunbar, sunk by our gunboats last winter and is trying to fix up her engines.”[11] And a correspondent known as “The Bohemian” who wrote for the Florence Times writing in November of 1906 stated that “the steamer Dunbar was run into the mouth of Cypress Creek and scuttled. She was later floated and ‘warped’ over Muscle Shoals and put in the Confederate service to be later captured and used by the federals.” [12] Two years later, in April of 1908 the Bohemian recounted how the Dunbar had been “floated and taken over Mussle Shoals to Chattanooga where the Confederates used her as a transport.”[13] So did Lt.-Cmdr. Gwin burn the Dunbar or did Gen. Roddey raise her and repair her engines? A report by Union Lieutenant-Commander Leroy Fitch in February of 1863 reported that he chased a ship by that name above “Big [Great] Mussel Shoals. She can never get below again.” [14] However the website “Steamboats Built in the Greater Pittsburgh Area” maintains that “there seems to have been several boats of this name” (Dunbar) so perhaps the ship Fitch chased in February of 1863 was not the same Dunbar which was stuck at the Gundle Ford on Cypress Creek in February of 1862?
[1] “Great Excitement in Florence!! Citizens Leaving! Three Steam Boats Burnt. Two Others Sunk! Two Yankee Gun Boats at our Landing! Three or Four Shots fired, but ‘Nobody Hurt.’”, Florence Gazette, Wednesday, February 12, 1862, p. 2.
[2] Report of Lt. Cmdr. SL Phelps to Flag-Officer AH Foote, February 10, 1862, from Official Record Series I Volume VII, pp. 153-156.
[3] In October of 1898 a workman on the bridge discovered an unexploded 32 lb Civil War shell in the water beneath the bridge, so the bridge may have been struck by shells.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] “Steamboats built in the Greater Pittsburgh Area and Captains, Masters & Boatmen in Pittsburgh History” at: http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~ricksgenealogy/boat_pa.htm
[9] “Great Excitement in Florence!!”, Florence Gazette, Wednesday, February 12, 1862, p. 2.
[10] Report of Lt.-Cmdr. Wm. Gwin, USN to Flag-Officer AH Foote, USN, April 23, 1862, from Official Record, Series I Volume 23, p. 77.
[11] Official Record Series I Volume XVII, Part II, Correspondence, p. 543.
[12] “Random Ramblings” by ‘the Bohemian,” Florence Times, Friday, November 30, 1906, p. 3.
[13] “Random Ramblings” by “The Bohemian,” Florence Times, Friday, April 3, 1908, p. 2.
[14] Report of Lt.-Cmdr. Leroy Fitch to Fleet Capt. AM Pennock, February 24, 1863, from Official Record Series I, Volume 24, p. 44.

Previous Entries from The History Corner:

The Kennedy Gun Factory (Robin Campbell and Michael Bray, April 2014)
The Capture of John A. Murrell, Natchez Trace Outlaw (Casey Mills and Jesse Brock, January, 2014)
Tales from Beyond the Grave: The Life and Legend of Thomas Marion “Mountain Tom” Clark (Lee Freeman, August 2013)

For More Information about the Historic Markers of Colbert and Lauderdale Counties, please visit Dr. David Currot’s Signs of the Past Facebook page.