Survey of the Civil War ships, USS PHILIPPI, C.S.S. GAINES, blockade runner IVANHOE, USS MILWAUKEE, and USS OSAGE. Also eighteenth century French merchant vessel, BELLONE. September, 1989.
The interesting aspect the marine archaeology of Mobil Bay is that so little has taken place. Except for a survey of Civil War obstructions just below the main city dock area, a few dives on the monitor Tecumseh, and the discovery of two Confederate ironclad floating batteries, no one bothered to confirm the location and dispositions of the many ships lost in and around Mobile Bay beginning as early as the sixteenth century.
After obtaining the necessary permits and working with John Tyson, a former state senator and prominent attorney, and state historical agencies, not to forget the Army Corp of Engineers, the NUMA team consisting of Cussler, Craig Dirgo and Allen Green set up a base at Fort Morgan and began the survey.
The approximate locations of the vessels, with the exceptions of the Bellone, Milwaukee and the Osage, were well documented through old charts. Our primary goal was to verify the existence of these wrecks and determine condition if possible. Using the research compiled by Jack Friend and the Baldwin County Historical Commission, we set out for the first target, the Confederate gunboat, Gaines. This was a hastily constructed sidewheel steamer 202 feet in length with a 38 foot beam. Planned by a crew of 130, it mounted one 8 inch rifled gun and five 32 pounders. She fought a good fight against the Union fleet before being run aground behind Fort Morgan to avoid capture.
After a few passes using our EG&G sidescan sonar and the Schoenstedt gradiometer, we received a very heavy mag reading indicating the presence of boilers. The sonar, however, recorded nothing of interest, except a nearby sunken barge. We went over the side in only five feet of water and immediately found several clusters of coal. Then, using steel probes we struck iron plate and other hard objects three feet below the bottom.
The Gaines site could prove an excellent excavation project during low tide.
Next, we circled the Fort Morgan point and began sweeps for the Ivanhoe, a Confederate blockade runner that was run aground in June of 1864 and burned by a Union force. After a land and water search over a square acre grid to make sure no other anomalies were close by, we quickly found the site by using chart overlays and the gradiometer. Our readings showed scattered debris with the heaviest hits about fifty yards south of the end of the road and twenty yards from the shoreline.
Despite rumors of divers salvaging the ship in recent years, we found the remains to be buried between 12 and 18 feet. This is consistent with other ships we’ve surveyed that ran ashore over the course of a hundred or more years and were slowly buried in the sand, particularly under similar conditions in the Charleston area.
The following day, we set out early to search for the Philippi. Formerly the blockade runner, Ella, a sidewheel steamer 311 feet in length and a beam of 24 feet. She was captured and commissioned as a Union navy gunboat. During Farragut’s entry into Mobile Bay, the Philippi moved behind the fleet and ran aground. She was shelled by the guns of Fort Morgan and eventually set on fire.
We set up a grid starting from the outer channel buoy and worked along the west bank of the channel where overlays of the 1864 chart put the ship on modern recordings. Running the bank on the fathometer while probing with the gradiometer and sonar, we worked for four hours before striking a strong sidescan picture of a shipwreck standing proud of the bottom. After mooring over the site, our divers went down and returned with the announcement that we had struck an old steamer. The visibility was little more than three feet, but burnt hull beams, scattered remains of boilers and coal indicated that in all probability it was indeed the Philippi.
The search was continued for a distance of 300 yards on each side of the vessel to determine if there were any other ships or anomalies in the area. There were none, the bottom was clean of all but small debris.
We had expected to find the remains the Philippi buried, but because it lies on the bank and is scoured by the action of the tides in and out of the channel much of the wreck is exposed. The next morning we were out again early to make an attempt to find the remains of the Bellone, a French merchant vessel that mysteriously sprang a leak and sank suddenly off Dauphin Island on April 1, 1725. An interesting clue about the Bellone is a map showiag its anchorage. Lining the marking up with Alligator Lake and Oleander Pond, which still occupy areas of Dauphin Island in the same approximate locations, we obtained a quick and practical reference point to center the search. In addition, because of the size and the draft of the vessel and the little change in depth over 350 years, we assumed the prime wreck site to be in water exceeding 10 feet deep.
We began our search lanes, however, as close in shore as the boat could run and ran all the way to Pelican Island, extending from the east end of the island to a hundred yards beyond a condominium complex to the west. We spent the entire day, running east and west lanes, and north and south lanes as insurance. The lanes were run in widths of approximately forty feet and were marked off with four buoys set in lines that were picked up and repositioned after three runs on each side.
We found two targets. One suggested an old fishing boat about 50 feet in length. The second seemed the most promising as the Bellone. It covered a much larger area and stretched between 100 to 130 feet. There was considerable scattered debris but little of the vessel was sticking up from the bottom. From past experience, we found that shrimp trawlers running over the wreck for a hundred years or more have leveled it with their nets. We obtained several good readings and sent a diver down, who reported wood, but didn’t hang around too long in the murky water due to a fear of sharks. Though the depth was only twelve feet, visibility was down to a foot or two.
From an archaeology standpoint, this would be an excellent wreck to work. Interesting artifacts should abound at the wreck site, and the shallow depth would enable divers to work for long periods, providing some sort of cage was built for protection against nasty sea creatures.
Late that afternoon, we also attempted to locate the remains of the Hermes, a British warship that had blown up near Mobile Point during the war of 1812, We covered the entire water area by boat and recorded nothing. A study of the movement of the shore around Fort Morgan indicates the point has moved out somewhat and any remains of the Hermes are covered over by the beach sand. A land search that evening turned up little that would incite an extensive excavation.
We then bid a fond farewell to our house at Fort Morgan and moved the operation to the Blakely River to search for any remains of the union monitors Milwaukee and Osage, sunk by Confederate mines during the closing months of the war.
The Milwaukee was an unusual ironclad with two different types of turrets both mounting 11 inch Dahlren smoothbores. She was 257 feet in length with a beam of 57 feet. Just below Spanish Fort on March 28, 1865, she struck a Confederate torpedo and sank in deep water until she was completely submerged.
The Osage was a single-turreted river monitor that measured 523 feet in length with a 45 foot beam. She mounted two 11 inch Dahlgren cannon. She was also put on the bottom by a Confederate torpedo only a day after the Milwaukee.
Although it is recorded that the hulk of the Osage was raised three years later and sold at auction in New Orleans, and the Milwaukee was supposedly also salvaged, we’ve found that quite often the salvors leave considerable debris and wreckage behind. Then, there is the intriguing map on an 1867 chart showing a historical site above the Blakely River bar. We could not help but wonder if it was the marked site of one of the ironclads. Unfortunately, the flag when overlaid on modern charts sits in the middle of an immense bog.
We imaged with both the mag and sonar from the causeway to the site of the old bar and found no trace of a shipwreck. There were some heavy mag reading further up the river under the shore, but according to contemporary reports, both ironclads were sunk not far above the bar which was out from the mouth of the river in the bay.
Perhaps if we return, we’ll drop a mag out of a helicopter and check out the bog. Who knows, maybe one of salvaged remains of an old monitor still lies alone and forgotten in the mud.