Hunt for the Lost Confederate Fleet
This was a fleet that I found most intriguing. It was the Confederacy’s last fighting squadron of ships, and many of the south’s most famous naval heroes served on its ironclad gunboats.
Semmes and Kell from the Alabama, Read of Arkansas and Florida fame, Glassel from the David in Charleston, and many others ended their naval careers with the James River Fleet.
Our NUMA crew along with the UAJV team and Doc Edgerton made a few passes up and down the river at the Drewry Bluff site but the rain came down in torrents and Doc’s sub-bottom profiler had trouble reading through the gasses deep in the mud.
But fate dealt a lucky hand.
Determined to go through every file and drawer in the Army Corp of Engineers archives at Fort Norfolk, I dug in one morning intending to make an all out two day effort. Besides the James River Fleet, I was also searching for any clues to the Merrimack and any other ships that went down in the tidewater area during the past two hundred years.
No more than three hours into the hunt I struck pay dirt.
In a drawer marked ‘Survey of the Pamunkey River 1931’ I found a large sheet of very unusual transparent paper that had been tinted orange and blue from the rear, beautifully done, and labeled ‘Position of Wrecks, Drury’s Bluff’. Off to one side was a brief note by my old friend from Charleston, Benjamin Maillefert, the salvor from Charleston.
He had drawn the map which showed the wreck sites of the fleets destruction in 1865. A total of eight ships were outlined where he had salvaged them.
I immediately headed for the nearest saloon and quickly became bagged.
The following survey by the guys from UAJV pretty much tells the story.
CSS VIRGINIA II
A very tough ironclad built along the lines of the famous Merrimack (Virginia). She lies badly broken nearly twenty feet under the silt, partially beneath the opposite shoreline from the bluff.
Her remains are only fifty yards up river from her sister ship. She rests in a parallel position with the river six to fifteen deep under the mud, also opposite Drewry’s Bluff.
The third ironclad was positively identified on dives during the 1985 James River expedition. He grave is about two thirds across the river to the west of Chaffin’s Bluff, twenty-six to thirty-six feet deep. She is mostly buried by silt, but one side of her is open to the channel.
A sidewheel steamer used by the Confederates as a cargo ship. Sunk as an obstruction at Drewry’s Bluff in 1862. She lies along the shore under the bluff.
A passenger steamer armed as a gunboat by the Confederates. Fought with the Merrimack during the battles in Hampton Roads. Later sunk as an obstruction at Drewry’s Bluff. As marked by the Maillefert map she rests in the middle of the river, but very little is left of her.
The subject of this report is the most recent effort to locate the remains of the Confederate fleet’s James River Squadron from the American Civil War. The project was funded by the National Underwater Marine Agency (NUMA) and was conducted as a cooperative venture with equipment and manpower supplied by MA, Underwater Archaeological Joint Ventures (UAJV), Schonstedt Instrument Company, Dr. Harold Edgerton of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and a team of British Army divers from the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers.
The actual field work was contracted to Underwater Archaeological Joint Ventures who, under a permit issued by the Virginia Yarine Resources Commission, conducted a two-week Phase I Archaeological Survey in August and September of 1982. The survey area is approximately 12 miles south of Richmond, Virginia, and encompasses both Chaffin Bluff and Drewry’s Bluff (site of Ft. Darling, Fig. 1).
In order to strengthen the Confederate Navy, an appeal went out in March of 1862 for Southerners to donate funds to build the CSS Richmond. Individuals and civic groups banded together and gave both money and scrap iron for the cause. In Richmond, Virginia, the tobacco factories destroyed their machinery so that it could be used for the iron casemate.
The CSS Richmond, designed by William Graves, was to be 160 feet long with a beam of 41 feet and drawing 12″‘ feet of water. The ship’s casemate frame was oak and pine 18 inches thick, covered with 4 inches of iron plate above the waterline and 2-inch plating below. The Richmond’s armament was composed of four 7-inch Brooke rifles which were cast in Richmond, Virginia.
In 1864 two other ironclads were constructed at Rocketts, the Richmond Naval Yard, which would serve in the James River Squadron, the CSS Virginia II and the CSS Fredericksburg. The CSS Virginia II was 180 feet in length with a beam of 48 feet and drew 14 feet of water. The casemate was 6-inch iron plate and her armament in 1865 consisted of six guns (Fig. 2). The CSS Fredericksburg was 170 feet in length with a beam of 41 feet and drew 9 feet 6 inches of water. The casemate was 4-inch iron plate and in 1865 the ship was armed with six guns (Fig. 3).
In 1862, prior to the building of the ironclads Fredericksburg and Virginia II, the Confederates sank the steamers Jamestown, Northampton, and Curtis Peck off Drewry’s Bluff as obstructions to prevent the Union fleet from making an assault on Richmond. At this time the Confederate James River fleet was very weak but by May of 1864 the fleet had been strengthened somewhat and consisted of the Virginia, Fredericksburg, Richmond, Hampton, Nansemond, Roanoke, Beaufort, Patrick Henry, Torpedo, Drewry, Wasp and the Shrapnel. sentence (1) In August 1864 the Union squadron on the James was more than twice the size of the Confederate fleet and included the following vessels: ALawam, Alert, Commodore Perry, Commodore Morris, Caconicus, Commodore Barney, Dunn, Delaware, General Putnam, Hunchback, Nenota, Mackinaw, Osceola, Onondaga., Pequot, Sassacus, Saugus Steppine Stones, Young America, Eutaus and the Torpedo Tugs 1 – 6. sentence (2)
During the year 1864 the Confederate fleet’s goal under the direction of Commander John K. Mitchell was to prevent the Union Navy from making an assault on Richmond. Conversely, the Union Navy’s objective under the leadership of Captain and Divisional Officer M. Smith was to assure that the Confederate fleet was not able to run their blockade to re-supply Richmond. Because of these common defensive aims the Union and Confederate James River fleets only had a series of small encounters which inflicted negligible damage to either side.
By 1865 things were looking bleak for the Confederates. Lee’s Army had dwindled to a mere fraction of its former strength, Savannah had fallen, and Hood’s Army in Nashville had been shattered. The South desperately needed an important victory or all could be lost. Confederate officials thought that an excellent move would be to break up the Union blockading fleet in the James River and to destroy the supplies at the Union Army’s City Point supply depot.
A secret plan was devised and, on a particularly high tide on January 22, 1865, the strike against the Union blockade took place. The Confederate vessels were lashed together in small groups and drifted to Dutch Gap Canal. Unfortunately for the Southerners, a torpedo boat ran aground and was discovered by Union sentries. As the tide fell the Virginia II and Richmond also went aground and at daybreak the crews realized they were within gun range of the Union Ft. Pearson. In the ensuing battle the South Drewry and torpedo-launch Wasp were destroyed and the Union’s double-turreted monitor Onondaza administered a heavy heating to the ironclad Virginia II.
Later that evening the Confederate squadron tried another assault on the Union forces. As the squadron headed towards Union fortifications at Trent’s each, the blackness of the river’s night suddenly turned to day as the Federals illuminated a series of calcium lights and drove the startled Confederate squadron into retreat.
Things remained fairly quiet on the James River until April 2, 1865, when General Grant broke General Lee’s Petersburg line, leaving Richmond extremely vulnerable to attack. That afternoon newly-appointed Commander of the James River Squadron Admiral Raphael Semmes received this communication from the Secretary of the Confederate Navy:
Rear Admiral Raphael Semmes, Commanding James River Squadron Sir: General Lee advises the Government to withdraw from this city, and the officers will leave this evening, accordingly. I presume that General Lee has advised you of this, and of his movements, and made suggestions as to the disposition to be made of your squadron. He withdraws upon lines toward Danville this night; and unless otherwise directed by General Lee, upon you is devolved the duty of destroying your ships this night, and with all the forces under your command joining General Lee. Confer with him, if practicable, before destroying them. Let your people be rationed, as far as possible, for the march, and armed and equipped for duty in the field. Very respectfully, your obedient servant, S . R . Mallory, Secretary of the Navy. sentence (3)
The orders were clear, the men were rationed, the vessels were stripped, and late that night the James River Squadron was put to the torch as the highly volatile shells and powder put on a spectacular show of fire and explosion.
After the war many of the sunken ships which had served in the James River Squadron became hazards to navigation. Many proposals were sent to the government requesting salvage rights in order to clear obstructions. A report from Admiral Porter of the U.S. Navy stated that, “Some of the ships are in sight above the water and may be raised. They partly obstruct the channel and will either have to be raised or blown up.” sentence (4) A report from Commodore Radford of the United States Navy said that the “ironclad Richmond lies sunk abreast of Chaffin Bluff. She has been scuttled and blown up and probably can be easily raised.” sentence (5)
In May of 1865 the submarine engineer James Maillefert at Ft. Darling had cleared “9 large stone cribworks, strong framed; 1 iron hull gunboat; rebel rams Virginia and Richmond, or what portions of them as were in my way; also quite a quantity of piling.” sentence (6)
The environmental conditions in the upper James River include both positive and negative aspects affecting field investigations. Generally poor visibility (the best during this survey being approximately two feet) makes data recording difficult. Visibility is zero in water deeper than 25 feet as there is little or no light penetration; however, visibility can be restored to two feet with the use of underwater lights. Maximum current velocities are approximately 1.5 knots which is just strong enough to carry away silt that divers stir up while working.
Bottom composition varies according to the location and may be comprised of mud, sand, rock, or a combination of these. The channel area, which has been dredged on numerous occasions, appears to be composed almost entirely of hard packed sand, whereas the near shore areas are composed almost entirely of mud and rock. It also was noted that when large, heavily laden ships passed by, their propeller wash actually churned up the bottom. Obviously, such continuous action over the years would have severely, and adversely, affected any archaeological site lying within the channel.
The most valuable piece of information obtained for this survey was inadvertently located by NUMA’s Chairman of the Board, Clive Cussler, while he was doing research in the Norfolk Corps of Engineers Library. In an obscure file fir. Cussler found a detailed map of Drewry’s Bluff drawn by the submarine engineer James Maillefert in 1881. This map, which measures 28 inches by 17 1/2 inches and has a scale of 3/4 inch = 50 feet, shows the detailed locations of the majority of the ships scuttled from the James River Squadron (i.e., steamer Northampton, steamer Curtis Peck, Pilot Boat, Marcus, steamer Jamestown, steamer Beaufort, ironclad Fredericksburg and the ironclad Virginia II) (Fig. 4).
Once blueprint copies of the Maillefert map were made, a comparative analysis with modern charts showed that the main channel had moved at least 150 feet south and that the northern bank of the river had undergone much sedimentation.
For remote sensing, a Schonstedt GAU 20 underwater magnetic gradiometer was used with a Esterline chart recorder to detect magnetic anomalies. The Schonstedt gradiometer is somewhat new in the field of underwater archaeology and has some definite advantages over the traditional magnetometer. A gradiometer reads the difference of magnetic intensity of a ferrous object between two sensors spaced 20 inches apart, and can be towed at speeds of up to 25 knots. By comparison, a magnetometer reads differences in the earth’s magnetic field which, because of various atmospheric conditions, may often cause spurious readings, and it must be towed at a relatively slow speed. The gradiometer sensor was rigidly attached to the bow of the survey vessel and survey lanes were run by visual spacing parallel to shore approximately 10 feet apart on an east-west axis.
Dr. Harold Edgerton also provided the use of a 6KHZ guts-bottom profiler for a day but, unfortunately, bad weather prevented us from re-verifying two potential targets. Further complications arose as a result of decomposing organic material creating gaseous pockets which prevented proper sub-bottom transmission.
When magnetic targets were detected, steel buoys with lead anchors were dropped from the stern of the survey vessel for diver verification.. When gradiometer readings indicated that a particular target had a large mass, a series of survey lanes were run and buoys dropped in an effort to approximate the target’s length and width. Divers then verified targets by swimming a series of concentric circles in 10 feet increments and continued this procedure until a diameter of 100 feet was completed. As the divers were swimming they continually probed with four-foot iron rods where bottom substrate permitted it.
Another search method employed was to establish probable wreck locations based solely on the 1881 Maillefert map. By calculating transit angles from shore to the various sites on the nineteenth century map, we were able to transfer these data into transit bearings from our AB baseline. Buoys dropped on these areas served as focal points for visual inspection and probing by divers.
All targets whose existence was supported by gradiometer readings and/or diver investigations were shot in with land based transits located on the Drewry’s Bluff side of the river. Transit Station A’s center point is a large galvanized gutter spike in the center of the first of a series of pilings closest to the small creek by Ft. Darling. Station B’s center point is a four-foot section of iron rebar on the beach 405 feet from Station A. This rebar is only 15 feet away from a USGS marker (mongoose) which is embedded in the side of the bluff. It should be noted that both Transit Stations A and B are slightly under water during high tide. (Fig. 5).
Three major magnetic anomaly targets were encountered in the Drewry’s Bluff survey area. Each magnetic anomaly is identified according to the wreck site which it most closely corresponds to on the 1881 Maillefert map.
The Fredericksburg anomaly (Fig. 6) has a magnetic intensity of 100 gammas with the gradiometer sensor being at least 20 feet away from the actual target. The magnetic anomaly is of the typical horizontal dipole pattern which suggests that the survey vessel passed directly over the longitudinal axis of the target. According to Mr. Eric Schonstedt of Schonstedt Instrument Company, the anomaly’s signal is that characteristic of a shipwreck site. The magnetic anomaly’s dimensions of approximately 200 feet by 50 feet and its position in relation to the 1881 Maillefert map correspond to that of the ironclad CSS Fredericksburg (Fig. 11). By comparing depths on the 1881 Maillefert map and soundings that were taken during the survey, there appears to have been approximately 15 feet of sedimentation on the Fredericksburg over the past 100 years. Divers probing along the longitudinal axis of the target with a 21 foot stainless steel probe found much difficulty in reaching hard substrate because of resistance, and what was thought to have been iron was encountered on numerous occasions at depths ranging from 6 feet to 15 feet.
The Virginia anomaly has a magnetic intensity of 135 gammas with the gradiometer sensor being an estimated 15 to 35 feet away from the actual target. The magnetic anomaly is again the typical dipole pattern with dimensions of approximately 135 feet by 175 feet (Fig. 7). These dimensions and their position on the 1881 Maillefert map roughly correspond to that of the ironclad CSS Virginia (Fig. 11). The Virginia target actually continues to the present shoreline where probing of up to 17 feet yielded inconclusive results. One explanation for the Virginia target’s unconventional dimensions could be the fact that explosive charges were set off on the ship in order to clear the channel after the war.
The Northampton anomaly, which also corresponds to the 1881 Maillefert map, has a magnetic intensity of 90 gammas with the gradiometer sensor being 15 feet to 20 feet from the target. The Northampton magnetic anomaly, unlike the Fredericksburg and Virginia anomalies, is a narrow single pole target with associated scatter which suggests a concentrated area of scattered iron debris (Fig. 8). Upon examination of this target, divers encountered scattered wood, 11-inch to 2-inch iron piping, rock, copper sheathing, and many iron mechanical-type objects some of which were recovered for on-site photographs and subsequently re-deposited on the site.
Two of the recovered artifacts could possibly be components associated with a steam engine. One is a large spherical two piece iron support 2 feet 3 inches long that is fastened with a 3-inch diameter brass bolt and 3-inch diameter iron nut; the attachment hole is 13 inches in diameter (Fig. 12A). The other iron object appears to be some type of two-piece clamp that may have attached to a shaft and is 1 foot 31 inches long with two 1-inch by 4-inch bolts for clamping (Fig. 12B). Another artifact recovered for photography was a 2 foot 6 inch section of copper sheathing 1 1/16-inches in width that had 1 1/8-inch cut copper nails for fastening (Fig. 13A). The only artifact recovered that was easily identified was a common infantry spade designed for use in trenches. It measured 1 foot by 7 inches and had part of its wooden handle remaining (Fig. 13B).
In addition to the three significant gradiometer targets off Drewry’s Bluff, other areas of scattered wood, stone, brick and iron debris were located during this survey (Fig. 9) (Fig. 10). There is strong possibility that these may be the remains of the many wood and stone cribworks erected by the Confederates to block the channel. sentence (7)
After completing preliminary investigations off Drewry’s Bluff, we focused our attention further down river off Chaffin Bluff in hopes of locating the remains of the ironclad CSS Richmond. One major magnetic anomaly was located while testing the eradiometer at a speed of approximately 20 knots. Closer investigation of the anomaly showed a target of 135 gammas with an approximate size of 200 feet by 80 feet (Fig. 14). Because of time restrictions transit stations were not used, but compass angles were taken to various landmarks from the center of the site (Fig. 15).
Unfortunately, again because of time restraints, only two dives could be made on the Chaffin Bluff site. Divers located large areas of exposed wreckage consisting of wooden timbers with iron fastenings. One interesting feature encountered was a series of two or three rectangular iron boxes approximately 6 feet long by 3 feet wide and at least 1 foot deep. These were constructed out of 1/4-inch iron plate fastened by round stove bolt-type rivets nearly 3 inches apart extending completely around the top of the boxes.
Conclusions and Recommendations
Because of the historical documentary evidence, the dimensions of the targets and their position on the 1881 Maillefert map, and the artifacts from the Northampton site, we feel fairly certain that the gradiometer anomalies off Drewry’s Bluff do in fact represent the remains of the side wheel steamer Northampton, the ironclad CSS Fredericksburg, and the ironclad CSS Virginia II of the Confederate Navyos James River Squadron.
Unfortunately we cannot make a definitive statement on the Chaffin Bluff site. Although the site does lie within the area that the ironclad CSS Richmond was destroyed, further investigations will have to be conducted to ascertain whether this site actually represents the remains of the Richmond.
Because of the success of this project and the historical significance of the James River fleet, we feel that certain precautions should be taken to protect the sites from destruction. A survey should be conducted on the Chaffin Bluff site to determine its historical significance and state of preservation. Two to three days should also be spent on the steamer Northampton to determine the extent of scattered debris. Any construction or dredging projects that could have a negative impact on the sites should be designed in such a manner as to minimize the potential damage or, better yet, avoid the shipwrecks altogether.
Footnotes for the Naval Ironclads
1. Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Vol. 12, Washington, D.C., 1901, pg. 186.
2. Ibid., Vol. 10, pg. 326.
3. Melton, Maurice. The Confederate Ironclads, New Jersey, 1968, pg. 247.
4. Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Vol. 12, Washington, D.C., 1901, pg. 101.
5. Ibid., pg. 124.
6. Ibid., pg. 138.
7. Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Vol. 12, Washington, D.C., 1901, pg. 101.