Cumberland, Hunley & Florida
Not content with looking for America’s most elusive shipwreck, I had to try for number two, which should indicate to those who don’t know me that my mind lies somewhere left of delirium and right of monomania.
The story of the Hunley has been told and retold many times since her disappearance in 1864. Constructed by the Confederacy in Mobile, she was later shipped to Charleston in an optimistic hope of breaking the Union blockade. Despite the fact she dispatched four of her crews, she was quite advanced for her time.
The Hunley took up the banner left by David Bushnell’s Turtle and blazed the trail for future underwater warfare by becoming the first submarine in history to sink a fighting ship during war. She gained her everlasting fame when her crew of nine propelled her out with the tide on the evening of February 17th, 1864, and laid her spar torpedo under the side of the new Union navy sloop-or-war, Housatonic.
Robert Fleming, a fine guy and one of our great maritime researchers came up with the lion’s share of the data. He went two steps past the other archivists and found the Naval Board of Inquiry record into the sinking of the Housatonic. The 115 pages were, of course, written in longhand and the wax seal was still unbroken on the folder.
Testimony by the ship’s deck officers indicated that the Confederate torpedo boat had backed off at least fifty feet and perhaps as far as a 100 after implanting her explosives into the aft starboard hull of the Housatonic. This suggests to me that she survived the blast and is not buried under or inside the remains of the Union ship.
Also, in November of 1864, Admiral Dahlgren ordered a survey of the wreck. The salvage officer reported that he had dragged the seabed for 500 yards around the Housatonic and found no trace of the torpedo boat.
Several salvage projects in the next forty years could not find the hulk of the Hunley either.
Oddly, the evidence that seems to be consistently ignored came from Lieutenant Colonel Dantzler, Commander of Battery Marshall, the fortification where the Hunley was based. Historians assumed he was trying to cover his tail for neglect with the following report.
‘I have the honor to report that the torpedo boat stationed at this post went out on the night of the 17th instant (Wednesday) has not yet returned. The signals agreed upon to be given in case the boat wished a light to be exposed at this post as a guide for its return were observed and answered. An earlier report would have been made of this matter, but the officer of the day for yesterday was under the impression that the boat had returned, and so informed me ….’
Therefore, our first expedition to Charleston to find the Hunley concentrated just off the beach line. From there, we worked out to sea about a mile before we had to break off the search attempt and head for Virginia.
Doc Edgerton came down with his side scan sonar and confirmed that anything that sank outside of Charleston Harbor quickly settled and was covered over by extremely soft silt. Our divers found they could easily push their arms into it up to their shoulders.
It came as no surprise when we discovered the remains of the Housatonic totally buried and quite scattered. Our divers extensively probed the debris area outside her boilers and found mostly shattered bits and pieces. No intellectual giant was required to conclude that the Hunley lies elsewhere under four to ten feet under the mud.
We used two boats for our preliminary, data finding search. Our smaller Zodiac with Bill Shea operating a proton magnetometer, Dirk Cussler at the steering arm of the outboard, and marine archaeologist Dan Koski-Karell taking the navigating chores, slipped over the bar at Breech Inlet and ran search lines up and down the surf line, moving out with each lane. Our second boat, a thirty-two footer with twin Chrysler engines called the Coastal Explorer, doubled as a search vessel and dive boat.
Forgive me for dwelling on the CE and her crew. The skipper, I beg his forgiveness for losing his name, was a really nice guy. His two crewmen, whom I referred to as Heckle and Jeckle, were students at Charleston’s Citadel academy and a genuine pair of Southern characters. Barnum, Bailey and the Ringling Bros. couldn’t have outshone the acts that took place on the Coastal Explorer.
The skipper’s parents screamed at each other nonstop twenty-four hours a day. The boat’s engines broke down like clockwork. We almost all died from the heat, humidity and flies. We struck the breakwater while trying to take a shortcut, holed the bottom and had to bail like madmen or we’d have gone down in the ship channel. Even Doc Edgerton jumped into the water with myself and the skipper to help shove her into deep water. We ran out of gas a hundred yards from the dock on two occasions. Peter Throckmorton and I fought on a regular basis. Karen Gestla, our resident psychic, sat entranced on the bow, doing a creditable job of predicting the weather but striking out on the Hunley’s location. Debbie Sharp, Wayne Gronquist’s girl friend, made quite a hit with the crew, sprawling her six foot, barely bikini clad body in front of the windshield so the helmsman could not see over the bow. Ralph Wilbanks, archaeologist with the University of South Carolina, also greatly added to the festivities with his down home dance routines.
However, strange as it seems, the expedition was efficiently carried out. The Housatonic was discovered and briefly surveyed, we also found the dual-turreted citadel ironclad, Keokuk, and the monitor, Weehawken, with our trusty Schonstedt gradiometer.
Our shoreline crew did not go home dry either. They discovered the Confederate blockade runner, Rattlesnake, that had run aground off Breech Inlet. But their greatest triumph was saving the lives of three children who were swept out to sea in a tidal current. If Bill, Dan and Dirk had not been nearby when the mother and people on shore frantically screamed, the children would have surely drowned.
So, though we didn’t come close to finding the Hunley, the sites of four historic shipwrecks were discovered and three children are walking around today who came within thirty seconds of receiving premature funerals.
Note: Location and survey details on our wreck discoveries will be covered in the next section, the June 1981 report on NUMA’s Siege of Charleston expedition.
After wrapping up the Charleston end of the expedition, we bid the Skipper, Heckle and Jeckle, and the Coastal Explorer a fond farewell, packed up our equipment and headed for Norfolk, Virginia, where we intended to check out the possibility of a later expedition to find the famous Confederate sea raider, Florida, and the Union frigate, Cumberland, which was sunk by the Merrimack, or Virginia as it was known to the South.
Derek Goodwin, our esteemed Washington correspondent and his talented wife, Susan, had arranged for a large, nineteen-twenties built yacht to carry us up and down the James River to look for the two Civil War ships, resting in unknown graves on the mud just off Newport News, Virginia.
I realized this sounds farfetched, but the crew of the Sekonit, as the long, narrow old yacht was called, were as dingy as the last batch. Somehow the events fog before my eyes. All I can remember was sleeping in a cabin the size of a dollhouse closet and lying awake all night listening to my sweat drip. God, was it humid. Bill Shea, Walt Schob and my son Dirk had the good sense to stay in a Holiday Inn. My only salvation were the evenings spent dining and drinking on the large canvas covered deck.
The Virginia state archaeologist, John Broadwater, showed up with his assistants, Mike Warner, Dick Swete, Sam Margolin and Jim Knickerbocker, who would later leave the state and form their own marine survey company.
For the next four days we swept back and forth parallel to the piers and shipyard. We hit several targets, but one that especially suggested the boilers of the Florida. Walt Schob and the archaeologists dove and found a wreck which indeed later proved to be the Florida. A few artifacts were brought up, but because of stupid state laws Broadwater threw them back in the river.
My wife, Barbara, and I had to leave at this stage and fly to Boston for the premiere of the motion picture based on my book “Raise the Titanic”. As the old saying goes, ‘I shudda stayed in bed.’ The movie was a disaster, particularly at the box office. But that’s another story.
We wrapped our combination Charleston/Norfolk project of 1980 and headed home, already planning for NUMA’s next adventure in Charleston and another attempt at the Hunley.
Hunt for U.S.S. CUMBERLAND and C.S.S. FLORIDA
The discovery and survey project on the Union frigate, Cumberland, and Confederate raider, Florida. July 1982.
Since we knew where the Florida rested, and had a good idea on the Cumberland site, I felt it was time for a professional survey conducted by a team of expert archaeologists. NUMA then contracted with the four former archaeologists from the state of Virginia, who dove with us during the ’81 expedition. Sam Margolin, Mike Warner, Dick Swete, and Jim Knickerbocker made up the Underwater Archaeological Joint Ventures survey team.
They performed admirably. Rather than comment, I’ll simply let Sam Margolin’s article and the report written by Mike Warner and the others stand alone. After the survey was completed and the artifacts recovered, John Broadwater and the State of Virginia Landmarks Department, who had offered to handle the conservation of the artifacts, backed out and claimed they had no money. At this point all the artifacts were in holding tanks inside rented garage space.
Not wishing to see them disintegrate and be trashed, I worked out a deal with the College of William & Mary to preserve them. They did a remarkable job and charged me far less than originally estimated. I then donated all the artifacts to John Sands, the director of the Newport News Mariners Museum, which has to be the finest and largest in the country.
The museum people built a most attractive display for the viewing public.
Then after about six months, some admiral with the odd nickname of Beetle something or other and Mike Curtin, the rotund, heavy jowled curator of the Norfolk Naval museum marched up to John Sands and demanded he turn over, as they generously put it, “our artifacts”.
Demonstrating arrogance with little grace, they threatened to go to court in order to claim artifacts whose recovery they offered no contribution whatsoever.
Displaying a bureaucratic lack of fortitude, Broadwater and the State caved in. The story is they didn’t want to upset the navy, who was responsible for thousands of jobs in and around the tidewater basin.
So now the artifacts sit in the Norfolk Naval Museum. Though the navy thinks they belong to them, the truth is that all U.S. Naval ships sold for salvage and stricken from commission belong to the General Services Administration.
What thanks did NUMA and UAJV receive for their efforts to preserve our country’s maritime heritage from a grateful government?
Ingratitude, rejection and antipathy.
Is it any wonder many of us no longer vote?