The hunt for remains of the legendary Confederate ironclad, Merrimack in the Elizabeth River, Portsmouth, Virginia. September 1982.
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. Naturally, while everyone is making headlines and fame by searching for and discovering the monitor, where am I?
Looking for the Merrimack, that’s where.
How’s that for never following the mob?
I decided to give it a try after working with researcher Bob Fleming in Washington. He dug up voluminous material in the archives and sent it to my home in Denver, where I began the fascinating though tedious study of the evidence.
The story of the Merrimack’s off again, on again, salvage operations are well documented. Much was brought up soon after the war. And newspaper records of salvor, Captain William West, were quite detailed. His was the last salvage attempt and many historians thought the most complete, believing he raised whatever was left of the entire wreck and placing it in the dry dock where the ironclad was built. There, it was broken up into souvenirs, relics and just plain junk.
So why search if nothing was there? Because of a report by a salvage expert by the name of Barnabus, who mentioned that West did not bring up the entire wreck, and two newspaper accounts. One stated that “The portion of the Merrimack which was raised from Craney Island bend by Capt. Wm. West the other told of the hulk breaking in two and trapping West for a short time.
These accounts indicated pieces of her still remained on the bottom of the river.
Once again I contracted with the UAJV guys, who made an outstanding survey of the Elizabeth River near Craney Island, Every possible square yard was covered by Doc Edgerton with his sub-bottom profiler, Gary Kozak with the Klein 500 kilohertz side scan, the Schonstedt gradiometer, and Margolin, Warner and Knickerbocker who made numerous dives to check out targets.
I had a fun time during the expedition. Susan Wynne and Derek Goodwin came down along with Doc Edgerton, Admiral Bill Thompson and a few of the NUMA trustees.
We took turns staying at the Portsmouth home of Judi Spindel, who extended her gracious hospitality during our hunt for the Merrimack. She and her son and daughter were solid company.
One of the highlights of the trip was my invited review of the Civil War battle reenactment men of the 6th Virginia Regiment and Mahones’ Virginia Brigade. An event that gave me an excellent ending for my novel “Deep Six”.
For the most part, the search proved unsuccessful. Though a number of mag contacts bear further investigation and possibly even excavation, we determined that whatever was left of the tough old ironclad at the spot where she was blown up in 1862 was dredged out of existence by the U.S. Navy in 1942. At that time during WWII, they build an oil loading facility on Craney Island and dredged the river from eighteen to forty-two feet to allow dockside loading of large oil tankers. So except for pieces that were thrown by the explosion into the mud flats to the west, little or nothing is left. The Merrimack was obliterated.
Thanks to the efforts of Susan Wynne, a press conference was given announcing the sad truth.
This had to be the first time on record that an underwater search effort went on record as having failed. Still, I felt the record had to be set straight for those who follow.
The following pages come direct from the archaeologist’s report.
The ironclad C.S.S. Virginia (alias Merrimack), once the pride of the Confederate fleet, was lost more than 100 years ago. Unfortunately, little is known about the Virginia, and very few artifacts remain. The subject of this report is the most recent effort to locate the remains of this famous ironclad that helped change the course of naval history. The project was funded by the National Underwater Marine Agency (NUMA) and was conducted as a cooperative venture with equipment and manpower supplied by NUMA, Underwater Archaeological Joint Ventures (UAJV), Schonstedt Instrument Company, Dr. Harold Edgerton of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and Klein Associates.
The field work was contracted to UAJV who, under a permit issued by the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, conducted a 30 day Phase One Archaeological Survey in July and August of 1982.
The survey area is at the mouth of the Elizabeth River in Portsmouth, Virginia, and encompasses an area of approximately 800 by 500 yards at the southern tip of Craney Island (Fig. 1).
The story of the C.S.S. Virginia (former Merrimack) is probably better known than any other naval engagement in the history of the United States.
As Union forces were abandoning Norfolk in April of 1861, they decided to burn and sink the Boston-built frigate U.S.S. Merrimack. Little did the Union know that the Merrimack would be refloated in May and transformed into the Confederate’s first ironclad, the C.S.S. Virginia.
Commissioned on February 17, 1862, the C.S.S. Virginia measured 262 feet in length with the casemate being 178 feet long at a sloping angle of 36 degrees. The casemate was backed with two feet of solid pine and oak that extended from the waterline to a point seven feet above the gun deck. Over this laid a horizontal and vertical layer of 2-inch iron plate (Fig. 2). The Virginia’s battery consisted of two 7-inch rifles, two 6-inch rifles, six 9-inch rifles, and two 12 pound Howitzers.
The primary goal of the Virginia was to wreak havoc with the wooden ships of the Union blockading squadron in Hampton Roads. On March 8, 1862, the Virginia, commanded by F. Buchanan, successfully rammed and sank the U.S.S. Cumberland, killing more than 100 men and also totally destroyed the U.S.S. Congress.
The following morning, the ironclad Virginia, now under the command of Captain R. Jones, met the ironclad Monitor in a dramatic battle that ended in a stalemate but revolutionized warfare at sea. This battle was to mark the end of an era of the now antiquated wooden hull warships.
For several weeks after this historic battle, the Virginia and Monitor continued to stalemate each other. However, the Union’s military strength caused the Confederates to evacuate Norfolk and, in so doing, the Virginia, because of her deep draft, was not able to escape up the James River. The Virginia was run ashore near Craney Island, her crew was evacuated and the ship was set afire.
An eye witness account of the destruction of the Virginia stated that, “tar, oil, fat and grease were spread over the decks and set on fire. She had been burning fiercely for an hour and a half, when a terrific explosion tore her to pieces. The air was thick with large and small pieces of timber. Huge sections of red hot iron plate were torn off and whirled through the air so much like paper. The shore and water for miles around were covered with pieces of the wreck of every conceivable size and shape. The ill-fated vessel sank immediately, not a vestige of her remained above the water.”
Found in a contemporary scrapbook and quoted in Thomas J. Wertenbaker’s Norfolk: Historical Southern Port, 1931. For the most part, the Virginia lay forgotten during the War except that in 1865 she vas declared a hazard to navigation when the schooner Priscilla wrecked on the remains. On October 9, 1867, the Norfolk newspaper, the Virginian, stated that wreckers continued to remove portions of the Virginia’s armor and her stern had been successfully removed. In 1874- B.J. Baker and Co. had salvaged much of the Virginia and had a 10-ton.crankshaft from the Virginia lashed to the side of their tug Planet Mars.
On June 17, 1875, the Norfolk newspaper stated that John 0′Conner, Jr., was shipping old copper bolts and pipe from the Virginia to Philadelphia to be molded into fancy articles as relics.
On June 29, 1875, diver James West’s lighter, loaded with old metal and two cannons from the Virginia, sprang a leak and sank at the Portsmouth Ferry Dock. In May of 1876, James West raised the bottom timbers of the Virginia and towed them with their tug Nettle to Dry-dock #j1 (where she was originally refitted as the Virginia) to be cut up. Part of the wood was sold to Messrs. Tilley and Co. to be manufactured into relic canes and the rest was sold as scrap.
The working environment in the Elizabeth River at Craney Island is not conducive to precise field archaeology. Diving operations were hampered by extremely poor visibility (the best during the survey being 6 inches). This condition is thought to be caused by river pollution and a very soft silty mud on the river bottom that is constantly stirred by river current velocities of up to two knots. Another problem encountered by divers was what seemed to be hundreds of deep anchor or dredging scours that cut trenches as much as five feet beneath the river bottom’s general contours.
Bottom composition consisted of a very soft mud that became mixed with gravel in the areas towards the ship channel.
The most important environmental condition is the fact that since the fuel docks were established on Craney Island during the second World War, the entire survey area has undergone periodic maintenance dredging at depths of approximately 10 feet more than 19th century charts show.
Although the historical records showed that the Virginia’s hull or a major portion of it was recovered in 1876, NUMA hoped that scattered debris associated with the Virginia still lay on the river bottom. A comparative analysis of both modern and 19th century maps provided a fairly precise location of the “Aterrimac Wreck Buoy +101° (Fig. 3). Unfortunately, the entire area has undergone periodic dredging by the Corps of Engineers and modern depths over the “Merrimac Buoy” range approximately 10 feet more than the 19th century charts.
Three types of remote sensing equipment were used for this survey: a Schonstedt GAU 20 underwater magnetic gradiometer with an Esterline chart recorder for detecting magnetic anomalies; an Edgerton 6KH2 sub-bottom profiler to determine if large objects lay buried beneath sediment; and a Klein 500 gHZ side scan sonar for locating objects protruding above the river bottom. In addition, a Sitex 256HE recording fathometer was used in conjunction with these to observe coincidental depth variations.
Target positioning was accomplished through land-based transits on the Coast Guard piers at Craney Island (Fig. 4). For the gradiometer survey, the mechanical fish which was towed one foot above the river bottom was attached to a bridle with a flag for accurate transit positioning. Buoys were dropped on the northwest and southwest corners of the survey area with two additional buoys placed approximately 150 feet due east of the first buoys. These buoys served as a basis for running survey lanes with visual spacing of approximately 15 feet. When an entire grid was surveyed, the westernmost buoys were moved 150 feet to the east of original east buoys, thus creating another grid for surveying. This jockeying procedure was followed until the entire survey area was completed.
After plotting the original gradiometer data (App. I), ten zones of target concentration were chosen for a more detailed survey (Figs. 5-15), Buoys were dropped in the four corners of each zone and an attempt was made to re-verify targets with the use of the gradiometer. When targets were located, buoys were dropped and the gradiometer fish was retrieved. We then used the gradiometer fish in a manner we referred to as “vertical probing”. By slowly moving the survey vessel up current of the buoy we would place the boat in neutral and slowly drift past the buoy while vertically lowering the tow fish to the bottom. When a precise location was made of a gradiometer target, another buoy would be dropped. This in turn served as a focal point for divers to verify targets by swimming a series of concentric circles in 10 foot increments. This procedure was continued until a diameter of 100 feet was completed. As the divers were swimming they continually probed with 6-foot iron rods to determine if large solid objects lay buried beneath the sediment.
Because of the profusion of gradiometer targets recorded which would have required an inordinate amount of time to verify by direct diver inspection, and the minimal chance that anything remained from the Virginia, we also employed a less sophisticated survey method. We felt this method was justified by the extensive dredging which the area has undergone in the past. Two grapple hooks were connected to the end of a 10-foot section of galvanized pipe which was towed in the zones of concentration in an effort to locate solid debris. The towing mechanism was equipped with a quick release mechanism to avoid damaging or displacing any objects of potential historical significance.
Other survey methods employed included the use of a sub-bottom profiler in which lanes were run in a similar manner to the gradiometer. The final method used was the Klein 500 Khz side scan sonar which unfortunately was only available for one day when manpower was lacking and transit stations were not available. Sonar lanes were run. by visual spacing with the sonar on the 50 meter per channel scale.
A total of 183 gradiometer targets were recorded: 147 with the towfish on or near the bottom, 36 with the fish towed approximately five feet below the surface (see Fig. 20). Fourteen of these were located in areas of concentration which were visually inspected and probed by divers. None of these investigations revealed the presence of either artifacts or structural remains which might constitute debris from the wreck of the C.S.S. Virginia.
A treat deal of time and energy was expended in efforts to determine the most efficient means of operating the gradiometer. After much trial and error, it was discovered that many of the readings recorded while the fish was being towed on or close to the bottom were spurious, the result of frequent contact with sediment mounds and ridges in the heavily dredged and scoured survey area. Many other readings can be attributed to the presence of a large quantity of discarded steel cable lying on the river bottom. By using the grapple hook rig subsequent to the recording of gradiometer targets, we were often able to snag sections of cable and thereby eliminate the immediate area from further consideration without having to make a time-consuming diver search for the object.
Apart from the abundance of cable and a three foot section of iron pipe recovered during diver investigation, the only object of any significant mass encountered in the search was what appears to be a section of iron bridge girder protruding some 24o 211 from the river bottom at an oblique angle (Target No. 140, see Fig. 17). The object was detected when the gradiometer registered a reading of 36 gammas on the 3 miligaus scale (Fig. 18) while the recording fathometer simultaneously indicated a sudden five foot rise above the surrounding bottom. Using both instruments in an effort to pinpoint its location, we made a series of passes over the object and were able to drop a buoy within 15 feet of the target in a water depth of 35 feet.
Target No. 140 was also the only substantial object detected by the Klein Khz side scan sonar unit. Fig. 19 shows the side scan record of the girder and its associated scour pattern. Other objects recorded by the unit were identified by operator Gary Kozak as tires, logs, pilings, or other equally insignificant debris. An effort was made to cover the entire survey area with the side scan but, unfortunately, due to the lack of transits and sufficient manpower on the day that the unit was made available, total coverage cannot be positively assured.
The results of Doc Edgerton’s sub-bottom profiling operation were generally inconclusive. The prevalence of gas pockets resulting from the decomposition of organic material in much of the sediment within the search area inhibited the unit’s ability to penetrate the bottom. A number of relatively small targets were recorded, however, in shallow water off shore of Transit Station B.
Conclusions and Recommendations
Based upon our investigations and subsequent analysis, we have concluded that: a) there are no large areas of either concentrated or scattered debris associated with the Virginia lying on the river bottom within the survey area, and, b) apart from Target No. 140 (bridge girder) and numerous lengths of steel cable, there are no large concentrations of iron mass lying on, or up to ten feet beneath, the river bottom within the survey area.
Considering the 19th century record of repeated and extensive salvage operations conducted on the Virginia in addition to the more recent, chronic, and intensive dredging activities in and around the wreck site, we feel that the chances of recovering any portion of the ironclad are slim indeed. Should NMfA wish to continue the search, however, there are several options which might be pursued: a) relocate and dredge down to the shallow water subbottom profiler targets identified by Doc Edgerton, b) extend the survey area further offshore and conduct search activities in the river channel itself, an area less likely to have been affected by dredging, and, c) attempt to locate the site (near the old Portsmouth Ferry Dock) where salvage diver West’s barge allegedly overturned with its cargo of Virginia wreck debris in 1875.
A cautionary note should be added to each of these suggestions, though. The distances between the sub-bottom targets and the Merrimack buoy location, approximately 1000 yards, seems too great for these anomalies to constitute debris exploded from the Virginia. Also, any search activities, particularly diver investigations, conducted farther out in the channel would be severely hampered by the large volume of ship traffic on the Elizabeth River. Finally, as far as diver West is concerned, it should be noted that his credibility concerning salvage achievements has been challenged elsewhere, if the newspaper report about the capsized barge of artifacts was, in fact, based solely upon his own testimony.