Search for the Ironclads
The expedition to find the Confederate Ironclads Manassas, Louisiana, and Arkansas. November 1981.
For a shoestring operation this proved to be one of our most successful operations. Walt Schob and I flew down to New Orleans, picked up Erick Schonstedt’s faithful gradiometer, rented a car and drove down to Plaquemines Parish. There, at the town of Venice, we chartered a small fifteen foot skiff from a local Cajun fisherman and began searching for several of the ships that sank in the Mississippi River during the battle for Forts Jackson and St. Phillip. I sat in the bow in a lawn chair with the cast on a broken ankle propped on the gunwale.
The battle occurred in April of 1862 when Admiral David Farragut ran the forts and captured New Orleans, obliterating the small but courageous makeshift Confederate fleet that blocked his course.
We were most interested in locating the site of the Manassas, a Confederate ironclad ram. She was constructed from the Boston tug, Enoch Train, having railroad iron with heavy oak backing laid over her upper works so that she resembled a turtle. She was the first armored ship built in this country to see combat, predating both the Merrimack and Monitor. After being battered by Union naval guns, she was abandoned and allowed to drift down river while on fire. Admiral Porter tried to put a hawser on her as a curiosity, but she rumbled and sank beside the bank of the river.
The Louisiana was a monstrous ironclad 264′ long with a beam of 62′. She was armed with sixteen guns. Unfinished at the time of the battle, she had been towed downriver and moored under Fort St. Phillip where she was used as a floating battery.
We also searched and found two ships that fought a famous running duel up the river; the Confederate gunboat, Governor Moore and the Union gunboat Varuna.
The Louisiana was found the first hour, no great feat as the famed Civil war artist Alfred Waud drew a sketch of the huge ironclad blowing up in front of the fort. She lies quite deep, mostly under the present shoreline in a swampy area off the river. Her massive wreck no doubt contributed to the build up of the silt at the bend where she sank.
Two days later, dragging the gradiometer up and down the river from the forts to a point three and a half miles down river, somewhat above the present day Boothville high school, we hit the Manassas. The following year Tom Ryan and Bill Mueller of the Army Corp of Engineers contracted with Texas A & M to do a magnetometer survey. Their records reveal an anomaly in the precise shape and mass of the Manassas. They also found a large iron mass a hundred yards down river and forty feet from shore. A marine archaeologist stupidly checked out this site instead of the primary target and found a load of pipe. Then he went on TV and declared the Manassas wasn’t there. He couldn’t find any other ships from the battle either. It never occurred to him they are no longer under water but covered by land.
Spare me from marine archaeologists.
Schob and I then moved up the river and found the Governor Moore and the Varuna where they grounded a few hundred yards apart on the east bank.
This was our final day as we had to move up to Baton Rouge and look for the Arkansas. Unfortunately the weather kicked up and we didn’t get a chance to search any further. I would have liked to have found the Confederate gunboat Stonewall Jackson (no relation to the blockade runner in Charleston) and one or two others, but it was not meant to be, at least not this trip.
Arriving at Baton Rouge, we went directly to the Sheriff’s Office of West Baton Rouge Parish. I believe his name was Bergeron. He graciously loaned us the Sheriff’s Office boat, a fine little aluminum affair designed and built by a prison trustee. The only problem was we always gathered a crowd on the river. Everyone living in the area was used to seeing the boat dragging the river for bodies, and here we were dragging the gradiometer cable out over the stern. No one believed us when we claimed our search was for an old ironclad.
The Arkansas for some strange reason has been sidetracked from the historical limelight given her sisters the Virginia, Albemarle, Tennessee and Manassas.
She was hurriedly, crudely constructed up the Yazoo River in May of 1862. She was armored with railroad iron and boilerplate and mounted ten heavy guns. When she was still incomplete, her commander, Lieutenant Isaac Brown, took her down the river to the besieged city of Vicksburg. The incredible battle that followed was a classic case of an underdog pit bull charging a large pack of wolves.
While still on the Yazoo River, the Arkansas, ran into the Union ironclads Carondelet, Tyler, and Queen of the West. Hull to hull the Arkansas and the Carondelet, pounded away at each other until the guns of the Confederate devastated the Union ship and drove her aground. The Tyler also suffered heavy damage from the Arkansas while the Queen of the West took off to warn the Union ships moored above Vicksburg.
The Arkansas burst onto the Mississippi and tore through the combined fleets of Flag Officers Farragut and Davis, thirty in all, like a hawk through a chicken coop, firing every gun in all four directions. Cruising right down between the line of ships, exchanging broadsides, it took the Arkansas a half an hour to pass from the entire line of Union warships.
She was bashed and trashed, but she gave far better than she got. Shattered, blood soaked and triumphant she limped to the dock at Vicksburg. Her crew suffered ten killed and fifteen wounded. The Union fleets lost forty-two killed and sixty-nine wounded.
Over the next month the Arkansas was attacked at her mooring several times, but in each instant the Union ships failed with heavy losses.
In August the battle weary ironclad was ordered to Baton Rouge to support an attack by General Breckinridge on the city. Almost within sight of the city, just above the reach and before the upper bend, the Arkansas’ engines broke down and she was run aground and burned by her crew.
She drifted from the shore and floated downriver for an hour, burning fiercely, her loaded guns discharging, until she finally blew up.
Forgive me for lacking scientific credentials and not spotting the positions with transits, but by simply marking the wreck sites on maps anyone who follows our trail should have little problem locating the targets.
Her suspected hulk lies about half a mile above the Boothville high school on the southwest bank of the river. Note; the mag survey by Texas A & M shows her to be almost completely under the levee. It’s best to look during low water. There is a flat reef-like barrier edged with a small rock breakwater that extends into the river from the base of the levee for about fifteen feet. If you can walk this area, you can easily detect her iron mass, but can only pick up a piece of her from a boat running parallel to the breakwater. She is buried nine feet under the mud and could be very well preserved. (see Figure 1)
She lies deep under the shoreline mud a hundred yards in front of the southeastern embankment of Fort St. Phillip. You can easily walk the area during low water.(see Figure 1)
This durable Union gunboat rests against and under the northeast shore about a mile above Ostrica Canal.
After a courageous fight she ran aground and burned a few hundred yards above the VARUNA. Kids used to swim off both wrecks as late as the nineteen forties. They can be easily located and as of this writing bits and pieces of them still protruded from the shoreline.
She rests deep under the levee on a north/south heading about a mile and four tenths south from the auto and railroad bridge just below Free Negro Point, 230 yards below Mile 233. There was a newspaper report that a sand and gravel company pumped up skeletons and shells from the Union warship, Mississippi, whose executive officer was George Dewey. old inhabitants pointed out the general area of our find as the same as the Thompson Sand & Gravel Company. I can’t comment on the skeletons, but I’ve researched out the Mississippi, and she blew up and sank a good ten miles up the river. The gravel outfit most likely struck on the Arkansas as the shells were identified as coming from known Confederate ordnance, which strikes me as flimsy, knowing most of the guns used by the south were of northern manufacture. The other and very likely possibility is that the sand and gravel company were dredging farther up the river and indeed struck the Mississippi.
All the above mention shipwrecks are accessible to reach by core or a casemate method of excavating. I would especially like to see something done someday on the Manassas and the Arkansas. I’ve even offered to pay for an exploratory dig on the Manassas site but can’t get anyone interested in Louisiana to help in arranging the operation.
This is indeed a frustrating pastime. (see Figure 2)