Deep Wreck Presentation, Houston, October 14

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On Tuesday, October 14 at 7 p.m., Amy Borgens and Fritz Hanselmann will discuss the recent deep-water shipwrecks expedition to investigate the wrecks of three sailing vessels, believed to have been overtaken by a catastrophic event with a presumed loss of all on board. These vessels were lost to history until 2011, when they were detected as three unknown sonar targets during a Shell Oil seafloor hazard and archaeological survey. A deep-water remotely operated vehicle investigation by NOAA’s Office of Ocean Exploration and Research unveiled a copperclad shipwreck with collections of small arms and six cannon lying at a depth of approximately 4300 ft. A team of underwater archaeologists from several federal and state organizations returned to the site in July 2013 and recovered a small collection of artifacts to help identify the shipwreck. An investigation of the two nearby Shell Oil targets confirmed these were indeed shipwrecks – one a merchant vessel transporting hides among its cargo and a third vessel of unknown purpose believed to be a three-masted ship. The archaeological team continues to research the video and photographic documentation of the sites and learn more about the artifact assemblage as conservation continues.

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Deep-Water Discoveries: The Monterrey Shipwrecks in the Gulf of Mexico
Tuesday, October 14
7:00-8:00 PM
Houston Maritime Museum, 2204 Dorrington
Houston, Texas 77030

Free to the Public

 

 

Civil War Blockade Running on the Texas Coast

My new book, Civil War Blockade Running on the Texas Coast, will be released by the History Press on June 10. It’s available now for pre-order at the History Press, on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. An e-book version should follow this summer. This short volume discusses blockade-running in the western Gulf of Mexico, with particular emphasis on the last year of the war, when Galveston became the last remaining port in Confederate hands in the region. Running the blockade under sail, life aboard the Union ships of the blockade, and the lure of prize money are also discussed. The book includes an epilogue that discusses some of the archaeological work done on runners over the last 40 years.

Blockade-running in this area has been an active interest of mine for nearly 20 years, and I’ve been privileged to contribute to the documentation of four different ships involved — the famous runners Denbigh and Will o’ the Wisp, as well as Union vessels U.S.S. Arkansas and U.S.S. Hatteras. Lots of folks have helped me along the way, and I’m grateful to all of them.

Talkin’ Texas Navy

TexasNavySnottyThanks to the Sam Houston Squadron of the Texas Navy Association for hosting me at their first anniversary dinner Sunday evening, at which I spoke on the role of the little steamboat Laura in the coming of the Texas Revolution. It’s a great little story that deserves more attention than it gets. I’ll have to blog about it some one of these days.

With me on the program were Ed Cotham, who gave a short talk outlining events in Texas during the sesquicentennial year of 1863 — it was a good year for the Union generally, but a disastrous one for them in Texas — and Justin Parkoff and Jessica Stika, who gave an overview of the efforts to conserve and exhibit artifacts recovered from the wreck of U.S.S. Westfield.

In his presentation, Justin joked that he tends to be quiet and, because he didn’t speak up soon enough in a meeting where the NautArch students were selecting projects, he got stuck with “the junk.” (At this point he flashed an image of Westfield‘s machinery as it came off the site, in rusty, unrecognizable jumble of stuff.) In fact, Justin’s dived headlong into this subject with remarkable success, and has gone a long way toward not only reconstructing the gunboat’s machinery, but its overall construction and conversion from a New York ferryboat to a warship. Before he’s done, I think we will know more fine-grained detail about U.S.S. Westfield than any other ship of her type. It will be a delicious irony that such knowledge ultimately came about because her commander, 150 years ago, blasted her to smithereens rather than let her fall into enemy hands.

We’ll be hearing more about Westfield in the next few months — a lot more.

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Image: Wikimedia depiction of foul anchor and star insignia for the Texas Navy rank of Passed Midshipman, by user Glasshouse.

U.S. Coast Survey Shipwreck Identified

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In 1852, W.A.K. Martin painted this picture of the Robert J. Walker. The painting, now at the Mariner’s Museum in Newport News, Va., is scheduled for restoration. (Credit: The Mariners’ Museum)

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On Tuesday, the folks at NOAA’s Maritime Heritage Program announced the identification of the wreck of the U.S. Coast Survey steamship Robert J. Walker, that was sunk in a collision with a sailing ship in June 1860 off the Jersey shore. From the announcement:

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More than 153 years after it was lost in a violent collision at sea, government and university maritime archaeologists have identified the wreck of the ship Robert J. Walker, a steamer that served in the U.S. Coast Survey, a predecessor agency of NOAA.
 
The Walker, while now largely forgotten, served a vital role as a survey ship, charting the Gulf Coast – including Mobile Bay and the Florida Keys – in the decade before the Civil War. It also conducted early work plotting the movement of the Gulf Stream along the Atlantic Coast.
 
Twenty sailors died when the Walker sank in rough seas in the early morning hours of June 21, 1860, ten miles off Absecon Inlet on the New Jersey coast. The crew had finished its latest surveys in the Gulf of Mexico and was sailing to New York when the Walker was hit by a commercial schooner off New Jersey. The side-wheel steamer, carrying 66 crewmembers, sank within 30 minutes. The sinking was the largest single loss of life in the history of the Coast Survey and its successor agency, NOAA.
In late June, 2013, the NOAA ship Thomas Jefferson, surveying in the area to chart post-Hurricane Sandy changes in coastal waters – an essential job to ensure safe navigation with a major part of the economy based on the movement of goods by water – transited the area where Robert J. Walker was known to have been lost and laid a memorial wreath on the water. Using the sophisticated sonar mapping technology of Thomas Jefferson, The Office of Coast Survey’s Vitad Pradith, working with East Carolina University graduate student and archaeologist Joyce Steinmetz and the crew of Thomas Jefferson did a survey of the area and focused on the previously charted wreck thought to be Walker.

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After a ceremony last month onboard NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson, Ensign Eileen Pye lays a wreath over the waters where USCS Robert J. Walker sank. (Credit: NOAA)Blank

You can read a detailed, contemporary news account of the disaster, from the June 23, 1860 issue of the New York Commercial Advertiser here.

Videos from the wreck site are online here. The visibility is pretty lousy, but the exposed part of the wreck is similar in many ways to that of U.S.S. Hatteras, that was the focus os a NOAA-led expedition last year. Some of the preservation on the Walker site is remarkable. There are even remnants of what are believed to be wool blankets, that have been preserved by being covered in mud, in an anaerobic environment, until recently. (Hurricane Sandy may have played a role in exposing these materials.)

In her career as a survey vessel, Robert J. Walker probably served off Galveston, as she spent considerable time operating in the Gulf of Mexico. As it happens, her commanding officer during much of that period was Benjamin Franklin Sands (right, 1811-1883), whose first-hand knowledge of the hydrography of the Texas coast would prove useful some years later, when he commanded the Union squadron on blockade duty off Galveston during the closing days of the Civil War. It was Captain Sands who formally accepted Galveston’s surrender in June 1865, an event that effectively ended the Union blockade of Southern ports. You can download a high-res copy of one of Sands’ charts, compiled during his tenure aboard Robert J. Walker, here.

Congrats to NOAA’s Maritime Heritage Program and all its partners in this endeavor.

 

U.S.S. Monitor Crewmen Buried at Arlington

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Diana Rambo, and her husband Lorin Rambo, from Fresno, Calif., pause at a casket of unidentified remains after services to honor two sailors from the Civil War ship, the USS Monitor, at Arlington National Cemetery, Friday, March 8, 2013 in Arlington, Va. Mrs. Rambo is related to USS Monitor crew member Jacob Nicklis. A century and a half after the Civil War ship the USS Monitor sank, two unknown crewmen found in the ironclad’s turret were buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Friday’s burial may be the last time Civil War soldiers are buried at the cemetery. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

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Over the last year or so we’ve covered the story of the two members of Monitor‘s crew that were found inside the ship’s turret after it was recovered from the floor of the Atlantic off Cape Hatteras in 2002. Officials had hoped to be able to positively identify them from among the sixteen men known to have been lost with the ship, but have so far been unable to, despite efforts through genealogical research, DNA testing and creating facial reconstructions. On Friday, those two men were buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

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The burial, which included a three-gun salute [sic., three volleys] and a brass band playing “America the Beautiful,” may be the last time Civil War soldiers are buried at the cemetery overlooking Washington.
 
“Today is a tribute to all the men and women who have gone to sea, but especially to those who made the ultimate sacrifice on our behalf,” said Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, who spoke at a funeral service before the burial.
 
The Monitor made nautical history when the Union ship fought the Confederate CSS Virginia in the first battle between two ironclads on March 9, 1862. The battle was a draw.
 
The Monitor sank about nine months later in rough seas off North Carolina, and 16 sailors died. In 2002, the ship’s rusted turret was raised from the Atlantic Ocean floor, and the skeletons of the two crew members were found inside.
 
Researchers attempted to identify the remains by reconstructing the sailors’ faces using their skulls and by comparing DNA from the skeletons with living descendants of the ship’s crew and their families. They were unable to positively identify the men, though medical and Navy records narrowed the possibilities to six people.
 
What is known is that one of the men was between 17 and 24 years of age and the other was likely in his 30s. A genealogist who worked on the project believes the older sailor is Robert Williams, the ship’s fireman, who would have tended the Monitor’s coal-fired steam engine.

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A marker dedicated to all 16 men lost with the ship will be placed over the grave site. Efforts to identify the men interred there will continue.

Additional photos of the service after the jump, by Associated Press photographer Alex Brandon.

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Sailors march as they depart after services to honor two sailors from the Civil War ship, the USS Monitor, at Arlington National Cemetery, Friday, March 8, 2013 in Arlington, Va. A century and a half after the Civil War ship the USS Monitor sank, two unknown crewmen found in the ironclad’s turret were buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Friday’s burial may be the last time Civil War soldiers are buried at the cemetery. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
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Two Navy Honor Guard teams carry two caskets of remains as they depart Fort Meter Memorial Chapel during services to honor two sailors from the Civil War ship, the USS Monitor, Friday, March 8, 2013 in Arlington, Va. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
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A man in Civil War period attire salutes as two flag draped caskets arrive at Fort Meyer Memorial Chapel for services to honor two sailors from the Civil War ship, the USS Monitor, Friday, March 8, 2013 in Arlington, Va. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
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Two honor guards simultaneously fold two American flags during services to honor two sailors from the Civil War ship, the USS Monitor, at Arlington National Cemetery, Friday, March 8, 2013 in Arlington, Va. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
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Sailors salute as one of two honor guard team places a casket of remains, during services to honor two sailors from the Civil War ship, the USS Monitor, at Arlington National Cemetery, Friday, March 8, 2013 in Arlington, Va. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
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Two Navy Honor Guard teams load two caskets of remains during services to honor two sailors from the Civil War ship, the USS Monitor, as they depart Fort Meyer Memorial Chapel, Friday, March 8, 2013 in Arlington, Va. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
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Two Honor Guard carry teams stand next to two flag draped caskets as they arrive at Fort Meyer Memorial Chapel for services to honor two sailors from the Civil War ship, the USS Monitor, Friday, March 8, 2013 in Arlington, Va. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
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“13 Minutes”

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The Spring 2013 issue of the Civil War Monitor is now online, and will soon be available on newsstands and in subscribers’ mailboxes. My colleague Ed Cotham and I have one of the issue’s feature articles, “13 Minutes,” describing the January 11, 1863 engagement between the Confederate raider Alabama and one of the Federal vessels on the Galveston blockade, U.S.S. Hatteras. It’s an action that’s often given a passing mention in accounts of the war’s naval conflict, but rarely covered in much detail. Our manuscript is an outgrowth of research done last summer, when we were part of the Hatteras project headed by NOAA. We ended up with a lot of material, some of which had not been published before. The CWM manuscript is the result. I’m really pleased with the outcome, because many accounts of the battle treat it as almost a stand-alone event that happened independently of the broader context of the war. This manuscript does a better job of providing both the context of the event, and its effect on the future course of the war in the western Gulf of Mexico, which was substantial — more substantial than I’d appreciated before we started digging into the subject in detail.

As a gesture to this blog’s readers, CWM Editor-in-Chief Terry Johnston has opened a special user account for y’all to read the Spring 2013 issue in its entirety. The username is deadconfederates and the password is cwm3321 , all in lowercase. This account will only be active for a few days, then the issue goes back behind the paywall. (Book reviews, and the Front Line and Behind the Lines blogs remain open-access.) If you like what you see, please do consider a subscription to the magazine — it’s well worth the money.

I’d also like to pass along my congratulations to Kevin Levin and Brooks Simpson, who also have feature articles in the same issue — Kevin’s on African American servants in the Confederate Army, and Brooks’ on the behind-the-scenes maneuvering by fellow Union Army officers against Grant during the Vicksburg Campaign in the winter of 1862-63. I knew Kevin had one coming, but no idea about Brooks’ piece until I opened an advance copy of the issue myself.

Ed and I originally submitted two sidebars to go along with “13 Minutes,” one on the NOAA expedition, and another on the memorial service held for the two Hatteras crewmen killed in the action. The latter didn’t appear in the magazine due to space limitations, so I’ve appended it here, below the jump:

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Memorial Service

In the summer of 2012, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) marshaled a cross-disciplinary team of scientists, researchers, educators and archaeologists to document the wreck of USS Hatteras, sunk in the Gulf of Mexico during her brief engagement with the Confederate commerce raider Alabama on January 11, 1863. Participants included representatives of a dozen or more public agencies and private organizations, including the Flower Gardens National Marine Sanctuary, the U.S. Navy’s History and Heritage Command, Tesla Offshore LLC, the OceanGate Foundation and Teledyne BlueView. Funding and support for the underwater archaeology project was provided by the Edward E. and Marie L. Matthews Foundation, the OceanGate Foundation, and Teledyne BlueView.

Early in the planning stages of the project, someone suggested that there needed to be some formal recognition of the two men who died in the battle, both members of the engine room crew of Hatteras. None of the historians or others familiar with the Hatteras sinking had come across any evidence of a memorial service or remembrance being conducted at the site, either in 1863 or in the decades since, so a plan was immediately adopted to correct that long-standing omission.

The two Hatteras crewmen killed were 24-year-old John Cleary, a stoker, and 32-year-old William Healy, a coal heaver. Both were native Irishmen, from Counties Cork and Donegal, respectively. No one knows exactly how they died, although the engine space of the Union warship was heavily battered by Confederate guns during the battle, and flooded with scalding steam from the ship’s shot-through boiler. Genealogists working with NOAA were unable to find any evidence of the men’s marriage or descendants in the United States, and it’s unknown whether their families in Ireland ever learned of their fate. Though their religious affiliation is unrecorded, it is likely that both men were Roman Catholics.

To conduct the service, NOAA turned to the Rev. Father Stephen Duncan of Galveston. Father Duncan is an ordained priest in the Orthodox Catholic Church of America, but was raised Roman Catholic and attended seminary at Notre Dame. Father Duncan is of Irish extraction himself, and is a Civil War reenactor with the 69th New York State Volunteer Historical Association, recalling one of the founding regiments of the famous Irish Brigade. On September 10, the first day of diving work at the Hatteras wreck site, the first order of business was the memorial service for Cleary and Healy. On the upper deck of NOAA’s Research Vessel Manta, Father Duncan read a brief service in memory of the two Irish sailors, men who had enlisted to fight in a war not of their own making, but one that would determine the fate of the nation they had chosen for their own futures – futures that, in their cases, ended abruptly on the evening of January 11, 1863. At the conclusion of the service, a wreath was laid in the water over the wreck of USS Hatteras, where Cleary and Healy’s remains still lie. Red and white rose petals drifted on the Gulf swell.

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The Fate of the Confederate Submersible H. L. Hunley

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Big news came out Monday in the investigation of the remains of the Confederate submersible Hunley, arguably the most important scientific finding of the project to date. Archaeologists revealed that the cleaned an conserved remains of the iron spar that carried the boat’s 135 lb. (61kg) torpedo still had attached remnants of the explosive device’s copper casing, peeled back by the force of the explosion (above). This is a tremendously important finding, because it shows that the little “fish boat” was close, very close, the blast that sank her opponent, U.S.S. Housatonic. How close?

Twenty feet, maybe.

Here’s why. Hunley was originally intended to tow a floating mine (then called a “torpedo”) behind her, and run under the target ship. If all went according to plan, the mine would be pulled into the side of the enemy vessel and detonate — on the opposite side from where Hunley was.

Unfortunately, this worked better in theory than in practice. In testing, they found that the towing line was prone to getting fouled in the boat’s propeller and rudder mechanism. Hunley’s ability to dive and run completely submerged — in order to pass underneath the target vessel — was problematic, as well, as shown by two prior, fatal sinking of the boat. (Not for nothing was it known as the “peripatetic coffin.”) Clearly, they had to find a method to deliver the mine to its target that gave them precise control, which in turn meant planting the mine against the target ahead of the boat, not towing it along behind.

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Hunley Project Chief Archaeologist Maria Jacobsen. Charleston Post & Courier.

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For years, it’s been generally accepted that Hunley‘s mine was detachable and fitted with a spike or barb, that would be rammed into the target’s hull. Once that was fixed in place, the submersible would back off for a safe distance, and detonate the mine using a lanyard, in the same way that period artillery pieces were fired. Up to today, this was the accepted scenario of how the attack was supposed to have been carried out. The physical evidence revealed in Charleston on Monday, however, suggests that experience gained in another attack on a blockading warship caused a critical change in those plans:

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After the towline got fouled in the Hunley’s rudder and propeller during a test run in Charleston Harbor, engineers decided to refit the sub with a spar similar to the ones used by ironclads, picket boats and Davids, which were low-profile stealth boats.
 
The engineering quickly evolved through trial and error. In October 1863, a David attacked the USS New Ironsides outside Charleston Harbor, ramming a torpedo into its flank. The blast didn’t sink the ship, but did serious damage.
 
The explosion also threw a plume of water into the air, some of which extinguished the fire powering the David’s steam engine. Jacobsen said that attack prompted Confederate engineers to refine their method of attack. If the main thrust of the blast was up, the mines would have limited success hitting the side of a ship. They would do more damage if they were planted under the ships.
 
The Hunley was equipped with an adjustable spar that could be raised or lowered. The torpedo was fixed on the spar at an angle, so that when the spar was lowered for an attack, the torpedo was sitting dead horizontal.
 
Jacobsen knows this because of a detailed drawing of the “torpedo used to sink the Housatonic” that survives in the papers of Confederate officials in Charleston during the war. But until Hunley scientists found the remains of that exact torpedo, they couldn’t be sure those drawings were accurate.
 
The torpedo, like the Hunley, had been upgraded through trial and error. Because triggers and detonators on these torpedoes were woefully unreliable, the Hunley’s torpedo had three triggers, any one of which would blow the charge.
 
And, because the David’s 65-pound torpedo did not sink the Ironsides, the Hunley’s torpedo was packed with more than double the gunpowder — 135 pounds.

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As a result, the scientists now believe, George Dixon and his crew set out on the evening of February 17, 1864, with the intention of placing the mine not in the enemy ship’s side, but under the hull, anticipating that most of the blast would be directed upward, ripping apart that part of the vessel. This interpretation in supported by witnesses aboard Housatonic, who first sighted Hunley a couple of hundred yards off their port bow, then watched as the submersible passed across their bow, then came around to strike their ship well aft on the starboard side, where the contour of the hull sweeps in and up toward the stern.

That sort of attack, if were planned that way as the researchers now believe, almost certainly doomed Hunley and her crew. Nonetheless, neither the project’s chief archaeologist, Maria Jacobsen, nor South Carolina Lieutenant Governor Glenn McConnell, who’s led the fund-raising for the project since its inception, believe Dixon and his crew expected theirs to be a suicide mission. “They were pressed for time, they were pressed for resources, but nothing indicates this was a suicide mission,” Jacobsen said. “They just had to get the job done.”

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Detail of a painting, “Charleston Bay and City,” by Conrad Wise Chapman, showing a Confederate ironclad with a spar torpedo (show in raised position) very similar to that used aboard Hunley. Museum of the Confederacy.

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Lots of questions about what happened that night remain, including ones underscored by Monday’s announcement about the spar torpedo. Though the crew probably had little idea of how the concussion from the detonation of the mine would have carried underwater, the force must have been tremendous. While the hull of the boat itself remains covered for now with cement-like concretions of sand and shell, when these are removed beginning next year, Jacobsen and her team will be looking closely for effects of the blast, in the form of popped rivets and opened seams between the iron plates. It would not take many of these to sink a boat like Hunley, that had precious little buoyancy to begin with, even under ideal conditions. If her crew were incapacitated as well,  Hunley could easily have drifted, slowly filling with water, until she settled on the bottom some distance away.

We likely never will know all the details of what happened that night in February 1864, but the work of Jacobsen and her team at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center, where Hunley is being studied and preserved, are getting us closer and giving us a better understanding of those events.

In the meantime, I’ve updated the spar on my old digital model of H. L. Hunley. There’s a spool on the starboard side of the boat, next to the forward hatch. Until it was assumed that this was for unspooling the lanyard used to detonate the mine; now I think it may have led through a block on the upper boom, to raise and lower the spar. That’s how I’ve depicted it here:

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Finally, a few good Hunley links for those interested in learning more:

Michael Crisafulli’s Hunley reconstruction:
http://www.vernianera.com/Hunley/
Michael likely knows more about the construction and operation of the Hunley than anyone not directly affiliated with the project. Great stuff for the technically-minded. (Michael also can give you a guided tour of Jules Verne’s Nautilus, as well.)
 
NPS Housatonic Site Assessment
http://www.cr.nps.gov/history/online_books/maritime/housatonic.pdf
 
NPS Hunley Site Assessment:
http://www.cr.nps.gov/history/online_books/maritime/hunley.pdf

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Memorial for U.S.S. Hatteras Crew Members

September 10, 2012. Fr. Stephen Duncan of Galveston, Texas conducts a memorial service for U.S.S. Hatteras Fireman John G. Cleary and Coal Heaver William Healy, who died in the battle with C.S.S. Alabama, January 11, 1863. This service, conducted over the wreck of Hatteras, is believed to be the first to honor these men, both of whom were Irish immigrants. The service marked the beginning of an intensive survey of the wreck conducted by a team of archaeologists and technicians assembled by NOAA, that will create a three-dimensional sonar map to document the storm-exposed remains of the USS Hatteras. The wreck itself will not be disturbed, and no artifacts will be recovered. The wreck is a protected site, and because the remains of the two crewmen were never recovered, the site is considered to be a war grave.

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A memorial wreath and red and white rose petals scattered on the Gulf of Mexico at the site. I’ll have more to write about this project soon. In the meantime, here’s a NOAA press release providing the basic details. More Fr. Duncan here.

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Deepwater Horizon, Deep Wrecks

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A small point that may be of interest: the Deepwater Horizon debacle is unfolding within a few miles of three of the World War II shipwreck sites studied as part of the Deep Wrecks Project in 2005: Alcoa Puritan, Robert E. Lee and U-166. (Deepwater Horizon reportedly lies on its side, on the bottom, about 1,500 feet [460m] from its well head.) As far as I know, the rig sinking and oil release hasn’t affected these shipwrecks directly, but they’re quite close together, and biological complexities of the deep sea are not terribly well understood. Positions shown are approximate.