The Civil War in the Gulf is defined by the Northern strategy of the blockade of Southern ports and the daring efforts by Confederate vessels to scuttle this barricade. Several vital Civil War vessels have been located in state waters, such as the Confederate ironclads CSS Louisiana in Plaquemine’s Parish, Louisiana, and the Huntsville and Tuscaloosa in the Mobile River. The remains of the Union ironclad Tecumseh was found off Fort Morgan, Alabama, which was sunk by a Confederate mine. Only one U.S. warship, on the other hand, was sunk at sea in the Gulf. This significant shipwreck, the USS Hatteras, has been the focus of recurring investigations by the MMS, the Texas Historical Commission, and Texas A&M University at Galveston.
Constructed in 1861 by the Harlan and Hollingsworth Company of Wilmington, Delaware, for the Charles Morgan line of Gulf coast steamships, the vessel was originally known as the St. Mary. An iron-hulled steamer of 1450 tons, the side-wheel steamer was purchased by the U.S. Navy in September 1861 and converted into a gunboat during the same year. The vessel was armed with four 32-pounder cannon (a 20-pounder rifled cannon was added later) and renamed Hatteras. (gomr.mms.gov)
After illustrious service in the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, the ship was transferred to the Gulf Blockading Squadron on January 26, 1862. In less than a year, the Hatteras captured seven Confederate blockade-runners off Vermilion Bay, Louisiana. As the blockading squadron lay off the coast on the afternoon of January 11, 1863, a set of sails was sighted just over the horizon and the Hatteras was ordered to give chase. She pursued the intruder for four hours, closer and closer into shore, and farther and farther from her supporting fleet. At early evening, the Hatteras came within hailing distance of the square-rigged, black-hulled vessel the CSS Alabama; a barrage from the Alabama’s guns greeted the Hatteras. Within 13 minutes, the Hatteras, sinking rapidly, surrendered.
The Hatteras today rests in 58 feet of water about 20 miles off Galveston. Her 210-foot long iron hull is completely buried under about three feet of sand. Only the remains of her 500-horsepower walking beam steam engine and her two iron paddle wheels remain exposed above the sea floor. (gomr.mms.gov) The wreck of the US Hatteras is an important part of the story of the Civil War on the Texas coast, the defense of which is regarded as one of the greatest military accomplishment of the Confederacy. The ship’s remarkable history, beside the fact, that the remains of the ship are almost undamaged, makes it one of the most important underwater archaeological sites in the United States. There are six major steps essential for successful projects in salvaging shipwrecks i.e., research, project development, search, recovery, conservation, and marketing.
The groundwork for any shipwreck search and recovery expedition is the research behind the project. More well financed shipwreck missions have failed due to poor research than any other single factor. Not only is the research essential to assess the potential value, location and feasibility of finding a shipwreck, but also it is essential to establish the historical importance and the archaeological approach to the excavation that may be required. Various existing documents, wood cuts and other materials must be deciphered, compared, and examined to find potentially feasible shipwreck projects.
Even after the research has been gathered for any given shipwreck, the data is relatively ineffective without legal rights to the shipwreck and/or the actual aid and support of the government that has jurisdiction over the shipwreck. In the case of shipwrecks that lie beyond any government’s authority, how and where the artifacts or cargo from the shipwreck are brought aground could determine whether the cargo may even be lawfully claimed by the salvor. To further complicate these issues, there have been very few tests of the legal consequences of ownership of shipwrecks recovered in deep water. Some countries, such as Italy and Greece, prefer to just avoid the problem by refusing anyone the rights to retrieve historically important shipwrecks in their waters.
This is particularly important as most countries in the world assert control of 12 or 24, if not 200 miles offshore as their sovereign part. There are even instances of countries that do not legitimately claim the 12 mile limit, interrupting offshore operations beyond their official right, confiscating boats and throwing crews in jail only because their Navy implemented their “gunboat equity” rights. Once research reveals a project as promising, the next step is to develop a working relationship with the government or company that holds the rights to that shipwreck. Development of these dealings is often lengthy and requires great patience. Many foreign governments have had bad experiences with “treasure hunters” in the past and are suspicious and cynical of any mention of shipwrecks.
The search phase begins with a side-scan sonar survey of the target area. A sonar “fish” is pulled behind a research vessel, sending data back to shipboard computers. Every irregularity on the seabed is recorded, and then examined by specialists. The most promising oddity (based on size, shape, location and other factors) is then considered targets. The targets are then inspected using an underwater camera on a remotely operated vehicle (ROV). In some cases, magnetometers are also used to inspect shipwreck sites. Iron on ancient shipwrecks is particularly challenging. Over time it graphitises and ultimately becomes reeking black slurry. The positive feature is that a concretion almost always forms around the iron object. This is a thick, hard layer formed by iron corrosion products combined with sediments and calcareous marine organisms. Even if the iron has completely disappeared the concretion layer often retains a detailed mould of the original iron artifact. Occasionally other artifacts are trapped within a concretion, and if they are a less active metal, such as bronze, they may be superbly preserved by the sacrificial anode action of the iron. Where some base metal does remain, conservation is a difficult, expensive and lengthy job, and is not always successful.
A deep-ocean shipwreck recovery operation is the most costly step in the process. Recovery operations combine high tech ROVs, robotics, cameras and specialized computer hardware and software to carefully recover and record the position of artifacts. ROV pilots and archaeologists work side by side aboard the recovery vessel, directing robotic operations taking place hundreds and sometimes thousands of feet below.
Conservation And Documentation
Every article recovered from a shipwreck site, with the exception of gold, must go through a conservation process. The aim of conservation is to stabilize the artifact and it begins as soon as an artifact is brought to the surface. An artifact may remain in the conservation process for weeks, months, or even years, depending on the relic. As conservation is taking place, the artifacts are also being studied. Pictures, archaeologists’ descriptions and other information are recorded and documented. Findings are then published and shared with the archaeological community.
The “time capsules” presented by deep ocean shipwrecks will only divulge their secrets if good archaeological practices are observed and correct upkeep and documentation are done. A number of newly developed technologies are now accessible for the commercial recovery of precious sunken cargoes as well as also scientifically oriented ocean archaeology. Most of this technology comprises of by-products of former secret military submarine and anti-submarine research, which the British and American navies undertook during World War II and the Cold War. Others were developed from the most sophisticated technologies, which were developed by or for the offshore oil industry (exploration and production of gas and oil from under the seabed).
As a result, today no sunken ship or object wherever it may have gone down on the seven seas is outside the range of modern recovery or archaeological study.
The depths that people can work under the ocean have significantly changed over time. During ancient times, the near-naked diver holding his breath could at best reach and work at depths between 16 and 26 meters. Later, during the Middle Ages or in the 18th century using a diving bell or a diving barrel, they could not descend much deeper although they could stay down for much longer. In the 19th century and the first half of the 20th, the highest working depths for hard-hat divers were 66 to 100 meters. With the introduction of scuba equipment in the latter half of the 20th century and the development of mixed gases, remarkable changes took place. A saturation diver breathing an artificial mixture of non-narcotic gases and oxygen could reach and work at depths between 330 and 500 meters. If a pressurized living pod was placed at the bed, divers could stay down and work for days. The hunt for sunken shipwrecks and the procedure of submerged excavation and recovery of a ship’s cargo has also seen remarkable changes. The diver swimming back and forth searching a suspected site for shipwreck can now and frequently is replaced by sophisticated electronic equipment both on and below the surface of the sea.
A search vessel towing sidescan sonar can search for a wreck that is not completely buried in sand or mud, drawing out a picture of the possible wreck site mound. A magnetometer (or gradiometer) can search below the seabed surface, providing evidence of variance that may be the most wanted wreck relics. Both search techniques are connected to the ship’s satellite-based GPS (Global Positioning System) which provides accurate locations for targets of interest and also through shipboard computers directing the course of the ship so that the approved search plan is carried out without mistakes or errors.
Once a target is located by the towed instruments – the wreck of a galleon, a Roman “Corbita” loaded with stolen statues, a World War II Japanese submarine carrying a ton of gold – a small, camera-equipped ROV (Remote Operated Vehicle) operated from the surface makes further identification of the target. The ROV takes photographs and video recordings, performs measurements and makes a first preliminary overview of the discovered target. (dse-plc.com) It can also use a mechanical steel claw to bring back to the surface precious samples of the ship and its contents. This work provides an essential archaeological inspection.
Later, recovery from the wreck itself can be performed using large, specialized ROVs, huge machines the size of a lorry, which are equipped with all the essential modified tools for all types of excavation and recovery: mechanical and pneumatic tools, vacuum cleaners, diggers, sand blasting equipment or other necessary machines. Up till now, an American company that located the 19th century steamship “Central American” off the east coast of the United States performed the deepest successful excavation. It provided an immense treasure of gold coins, gold bars and gold dust mined and minted by the “49ers” of the California gold rush days of 1848-49. (dse-plc.com)