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Steam Machines July 1, 1998
by Kenneth W. Karsmizki


A side-wheel river steamer, the USS Black Hawk served as the
flagship of the Mississippi River Squadron during the Civil War.
(U.S. Naval Historical Center)

Ken Burns' documentary The Civil War broke all viewing records for a PBS series when it aired in 1990. Like the vast majority of literature on the Civil War, it focused on great land battles, awesome casualties, and larger-than-life personalities, paying less attention to the war's maritime history. The Civil War's naval confrontations are no less dramatic, devastating, or deserving of attention. The remains of vessels are a significant part of our archaeological heritage and a challenge to underwater archaeologists.

The USS Monitor is probably the best-known example of Civil War era naval ingenuity and current archaeological efforts. Designed in 1861 by John Ericsson, a Swedish naval architect and inventor, the Monitor was the prototype for more than 50 Union steam-powered ironclads built during the conflict. A revolving armored turret encasing twin Dahlgren guns and a pilot house were the only structures on the vessel visible above water, prompting critics to describe the ship as a "cheesebox on a raft," and a "tin can on a shingle." But the Monitor offered the Confederates a small target and was maneuverable. Forced-air ventilation was invented to support the crew, housed below the water line. The vessel survived its historic battle with the ironclad CSS Virginia (built on the hull of the scuttled wooden warship USS Merrimack), but was lost a few months later when it capsized in a gale off Cape Hatteras. Resting at a depth of 235 feet, the Monitor presents a tremendous challenge to archaeologists. It lies upside down and partially buried, its hull badly deteriorated from damage at the time of sinking, corrosive seawater, depth charges during World War II (the Monitor's sonar signature being mistaken for that of a U-boat), and possibly from anchors of fishing boats. Such a historic ship is also a perfect target for salvage divers who are not interested in it as an unparalleled source of information, but as a source of profit from looting. Remotely operated oceanographic cameras for still photography, stereo photography, side-scan sonar, three-dimensional acoustic imaging, remotely operated deep sea submersibles, submersibles utilizing lock-out divers, remotely controlled videotaping, underwater closed circuit television, free-swimming divers, computer-controlled positioning systems, and computer video digitization are all being used to try to save the endangered wreck, now collapsing under its own weight. The Monitor's resting place became the first National Marine Sanctuary in 1975.

Another innovative Civil War vessel was the CSS H.L. Hunley, a 40-foot-long, man-powered vessel that sank of the coast of South Carolina in 1864 after sinking the USS Housatonic, a warship blockading Charleston. Southern investor Horace L. Hunley developed the sub, the first such craft to sink an enemy warship, when the Confederate government offered rewards for the destruction of Union vessels. Three crews, one including Hunley himself, drowned on trial runs. A fourth crew was lost with the vessel. The Naval Historical Center, the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology (SCIAA), and the Hunley Commission are planning to raise, conserve, and exhibit the Hunley's remains. (For updates on the Hunley project and underwater photographs, see the SCIAA web page.)

The war gave rise to numerous experimental types of vessels, and new ship designs litter the bottoms of rivers, bays, and the coastal waters of the Atlantic, including ironclad rams, thinclads, chain-armored ships, semi-submersible and submersible vessels (submarines), and small, fast, shallow-draft steamers especially designed for blockade running. The Union and Confederate navies also enlisted civilian steam tugs, ocean steamers, ferryboats, fishing smacks, mail steamers, ferries, coastal transports, river steamboats, barges, small river craft, and private yachts, converting them to military uses.

[image] Found on the Maple Leaf, the scabbard on the right belonged to Lt. Wm. H. Potter of the 112th New York State Volunteer Infantry. It was a gift from "the members of his Company as a token of their esteem." (left) [LARGER IMAGE] SJAEI divers recovered glassware and ceramics possibly looted by Union soldiers who patroled the St. Johns River and raided river towns and plantations. The ornate porcelain pipe has a hard rubber mouthpiece. (right) [LARGER IMAGE] (St. Johns Archaeological Expeditions) [image]

The Maple Leaf, built in 1850 as a luxury steamer in Kingston, Ontario, was converted to military service in 1862 and served as a Union troop transport on the east coast. On March 31, 1864, a torpedo sank the steamer in the St. Johns River in Florida in 24 feet of water. Four crew members were lost, as well as 400 tons of military equipment, including sutlers goods, tents, garrison equipment, and the personal gear of three regiments (see "Exploring a Civil War Sidewheeler," September/October 1994). St. Johns Archaeological Expeditions, Inc. (SJAEI), a group of history buffs led by Jacksonville dentist Keith Holland and the late Lee Manley, a commercial diver, with the help of the Program in Maritime History and Nautical Archaeology at East Carolina University, spent ten years researching and excavating 1.5 tons of cargo from the site, which was discovered in 1984. The Maple Leaf served as a training ground for many students in underwater archaeology, and spawned a number of master's theses, several reports by the SJAEI, and a book by Larry Babits of East Carolina University, soon to be released by Plenum Press. In the summer of 1996, a follow-up dive found that the Maple Leaf and the remaining 398 tons of cargo were once again safely entombed in the mud of the St. Johns. An exhibit of artifacts recovered in archaeological excavations of the Maple Leaf has been touring Florida museums, and will be at the Delray Beach Historical Society from December 1, 1998 to March 1, 1999; the Heritage Museum in Valparaiso from March 8, 1999 to June 8, 1999; and the Tampa Bay History Center from October 1, 1999 to January 1, 2000.

[image] Equipment on the Maple Leaf included a balance-beam scale, a mortar and pestle, minié balls, candles, and storage jars and canisters. (left) [LARGER IMAGE] A soldier's gear could have included a coffee pot, canteen, spurs, belt, shaving gear, and musical instruments. (right) [LARGER IMAGE] (St. Johns Archaeological Expeditions) [image]

Not all Civil War era sinkings were caused by warfare. As the war raged in the east and south, steamboats were plying the western rivers, supplying settlements as far away as Montana. Although these villages were not directly involved in the Civil War, sectional feelings were just as strong in Montana, Idaho, and other western states and territories, where a majority of the population was born in Midwestern states, the Old Northwest, and New England. But there was a significant number of settlers from the South, and antagonism between the two groups often erupted into open resentment during the Civil War years. Equally important, significant gold rushes pumped much-needed money into the war economy. Montana, for instance, contributed nearly $100,000,000 to the Union's war effort and Reconstruction.

[image] Stencil on shipping case from the Bertrand (left) [LARGER IMAGE] Socks found on the Bertrand (right) [LARGER IMAGE] (Courtesy DeSoto NWR, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service) [image]

The Bertrand might be the best-known example of a noncombat Civil War era sinking. In 1967, salvors found the river steamer packed with supplies, more than one mile from the present course of the meandering Missouri River in the DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge. Bound for Fort Benton in the Montana Territory, its cargo was destined for the gold towns of Hell Gate, Virginia City, and Deer Lodge, but on the morning of April 1, 1865, the steamer hit a snag about 25 miles above Omaha and reportedly sank in five minutes. Although the recovery was a salvage operation, National Park Service archaeologists directed the excavation, and the boat's more than 10,000 cubic feet of cargo, located on federal land, is federal property. A selection of these artifacts is on display in an impressive storage-conservation-exhibition facility built specifically to house the collection at the DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge.

[image] Oil painting of Bertrand by J. Livingston (left) [LARGER IMAGE] Bertrand excavation (right) [LARGER IMAGE] (Courtesy DeSoto NWR, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service) [image]

The Bertrand is only one of many Civil War era steamboats that found a watery grave in the Missouri River. Using funding provided by the Sons and Daughters of Pioneer Rivermen, the Museum of the Rockies at Montana State University-Bozeman is conducting a study of Missouri River steamboat wrecks. Research has shown that, of the nearly 1,000 steamboat sinkings on the Missouri River, more than three dozen occurred between 1861 and 1865. Like the Bertrand, most were sunk by deadly snags. One source of data is published books and articles that address the history of steamboats on the rivers of the West. Although this research typically focuses on related topics, there are often reports and clues related to the wrecks. Primary sources include the reports of the Steamboat Inspection Service, Records of Accidents & Violations, Wreck Reports, Records of Casualities to Vessels, and river surveys such as the maps of the Missouri River Commission. Newspapers of the various home ports or towns along the rivers are not to be overlooked, since they reported wrecks that had a direct impact on the local economy. The goal of this research is to compile a comprehensive list of maritime resources along the Missouri River and identify selected steamboat wrecks that can be evaluated further. These wreck sites will be subjected to a rapid magnetic search, and, if appropriate, intensive magnetic survey, archaeological testing, and ultimately, excavation. Beginning this summer, the museum's data base of maritime resources on the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers will be put online. Sensitive information will have restricted access, but a great deal of information will be made available to everyone. More of the data base will be put online every year, and continued research will undoubtedly continue to expand our knowledge about the inland maritime resources in the West. The museum has already identified a wreck site as its primary target for magnetic survey and archaeological testing, has discussed an agreement with the land owners to pursue this work, and is presently working to secure additional funding to complete the magnetic survey during the 1998 archaeological season.

[image]Bottle of mixed vegetables from the Bertrand (Courtesy DeSoto NWR, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service) [LARGER IMAGE]

According to Gordon P. Watts, Jr., of East Carolina University, between Union and Confederate vessels, more than 1,000 ships were lost or destroyed during the war. We can add to this number barges sunk to obstruct navigation, commercial ships that paid the ultimate price on the high seas, and steamers with nonmilitary missions that lie in beds of river mud. As this research has progressed, one thing has been made abundantly clear--we have barely broken the surface.

Kenneth W. Karsmizki is in the department of historical archaeology, the Museum of the Rockies, Montana State University.

Further Reading

Charles Dana Gibson with E. Kay Gibson, Assault and Logistics, Union Army Coastal and River Operations 1861-1866. The Army's Navy Series, Volume II. (Camden, ME: Ensign Press, 1995).

A. A. Hoehling, Damn The Torpedoes! Naval Incidents of the Civil War. (Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair, 1989).

Jerome E. Petsche, The Steamboat Bertrand: History, Excavation, and Architecture. (Washington, D.C.: National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, 1974).

Gordon P. Watts, Jr., "The Civil War at Sea: Dawn of an Age of Iron and Engineering," in Ships and Shipwrecks of the Americas, George F. Bass, ed. (London and New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996).

© 1998 by the Archaeological Institute of America