James River Search
James River search for Virginia Navy fleet sunk by Benedict Arnold during Revolutionary war, 1781, and the Civil War ships, Drewry, Commodore Jones, and Greyhound. June, 1985.
On April 27, 1781, a force of British soldiers covertly positioned themselves on a rise overlooking a bend in the James River and attacked a fleet of Virginia Navy ships. They were led by Benedict Arnold after he deserted the American cause and threw his lot with the English. The attack was a complete surprise and all nine American warships were either captured or burned.
Engaging the services once again of the guys from Underwater Archaeological Joint Ventures, and leaning heavily on the research of Bob Fleming and Martha McCartney of Williamsburg, Virginia, I arrived at the site along accompanied with my business partner, Bob Esbenson, and Bill Shea, who drove down from Boston.
Instrumentation consisted of a new magnetometer recently purchased by UAJV and NUMA’s old EGG&G side scan sonar.
Using as a basis a map drawn of the 1781 action by a British engineer, John Simcoe, we overlaid his sketch of the river with a matching scaled map of the present course. By this method we could pin down the location of the British guns and the approximate positions of the Virginia warships.
Simcoe’s landmarks easily corresponded on a current Geological survey chart, especially a rise resembling a pair of women’s boobs along the shoreline. The main difference in geology between 1781 and 1985 seems to be the river cuts more sharply north than it did 200 years ago than now. This particular reach is also no longer part of the main course of the James River. During the Civil War Grant’s army dug a cut between the north and south bends, calling it Dutch Gap. And though the old channel still runs into the main flow to the south, its northern reach ends at the tailing pond of an electrical generating plant.
During the search, everyone on the boat, chartered from a big bear of a guy who insisted on being called Critter, nearly died from the oppressive heat. The air temperature was 102 F. and the humidity was 97%. Still, I couldn’t figure why my sunglasses steamed up every time I leaned over the boat. Then I found out when I lifted the sonar sensor up from the water. It damned near burned my palms off. It seems the water coming out of the generating plant was only slightly cooler than steam and raised the temperature in the old channel to 108 F. Talk about miserable.
We found no trace of the Virginia Navy shipwrecks. No targets of any consequence turned up on the side scan sonar or magnetometer.
My own hunch is that the river has moved west in the past 200 years and if the colonials did not raise the wrecks after the war, their remains lie buried in the marsh northeast and under the land of Farrar Island.
We moved down the channel about a mile and conducted a mag search for the Drewry, a Confederate gunboat that was lost in action on January 24, 1865, and searched a section of the old river known as Trent’s Reach.
A local resident, Ray Grubbs, who generously allowed us to use his property for a staging area and who recovered a piece of a brass hatch from the Drewy when he was a boy, pointed out the general area where she now lies buried under the silt of a tidal wash. We found her with the magnetometer after only an hour’s search.
Our next target was the U.S.S.Commodore Jones, an armed side wheel ferry carrying six guns that patrolled the James River. She was destroyed by a Confederate electric mine in an explosion that claimed some 40 lives. She was lost at an army crossing of the James just opposite Four Mile Creek. The contemporary diagram showing the mine operation and her location at the time of the explosion is for the most part accurate. We found her mag mass about fifty feet closer to the southern shore of the bend and slightly up river of the drawing.
The water was only about six feet so we used eighteen foot steel rod probes, but had difficulty penetrating a thick layer of clay that we encountered at twelve feet and could not quite reach the remains.
Our final goal was to find the remains of the Greyhound, a very fast side wheel steamer that burned on November 27, 1864. She was built in the Keyport shipyards, New Jersey, and soon chartered to the Army quartermaster. She was later assigned to General Butler as his headquarters on the James River. On her last run she carried Butler and Admiral Porter and their entire staffs. She departed Bermuda Hundred and after proceeding a few miles a violent boiler explosion set her afire. She was run aground on Hog Island, or so the report went, where Butler, Porter and their officers and crew made it to shore.
There has been a bit of mystery about the Greyhound. Some historians have confused her with the much larger British-built Confederate blockade runner of the same name that was captured in May of 1864. They were definitely two different ships. There is a painting of her by James Bard and a photograph may be found in the Mariners Museum at Newport News.
The mention of Hog Island is also an enigma. Hog Island is far down the river just a few miles above Hampton Roads. Actually, the true report states the ship was run ashore at Hog Point. In looking over most records there is no such location, but thanks to the diligence of Martha McCartney, a point four miles down river from Bermuda Hundred was once known as Hogs Point for obvious reasons. A landowner kept his pigs penned up in a marshy area here. The point, was later known and marked on the charts as Jordans Point.
There was also a Union army Hogs Point signal station about a mile and a half south. We did a mag survey around the signal station area and found nothing. Then for some odd reason which I can’t for the life of me explain, I ordered everyone to pack up and shove off without ever running grids in the prime location. In retrospect, I guess the Greyhound lies buried in the sands on the western side of Jordan’s Point. That’s only speculation as we didn’t find a trace of her.
The team spent the next couple of days fishing for targets in the York River off of Yorktown, but accomplished very little. I had originally intended to so some hunting in the Hampton Roads and Norfolk area, but stupidly got sidetracked. Which goes to show that you should always follow your intended game plan before you screw around.
Buried under the silt in upper reach of old channel tidal flat about two hundred yards from south shore.
U.S.S. COMMODORE JONES
Buried nearly 20 to 30 feet deep in hard clay slightly west Four mile creek and 200 feet from the present southern bank.