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A Non-Profit Foundation Dedicated
to Preserving Our Maritime Heritage

Founded by Clive Cussler

A Non-Profit Foundation Dedicated
to Preserving Our Maritime Heritage

Founded by Clive Cussler

Lower Newport News Search

Union Frigate Cumberland and Confederate Raider Florida

As the Virginia maneuvered for position to ram the Union warship, the Cumberland opened fire with her forward guns. The ironclad responded with a shot that burst through the starboard side, killing or wounding nine marines. The second shell from the Virginia wiped out an entire gun crew except for the powder boy. The ironclad maintained a position off the Union ship’s bow and kept up a raking fire as the Cumberland lay helplessly at anchor, unable to bring her broadside battery to bear against her attacker in the slack wind and tide.

Then the Virginia moved away from her victim’s bow and steamed directly for the Cumberland’s starboard side, striking and deeply penetrating the hull below the berth deck.

For several moments the ironclad could not extricate herself and, as the Cumberland began to sink, it appeared that the two vessels might go down together. Fortunately for the Confederates, the ram broke off and freed the Virginia but, in so doing, exposed her to the Cumberland’s broadside. The Union ship was doomed and all aboard knew it. No uninjured gunners left their stations, however, since they now had the opportunity to retaliate. Despite their devastating casualties, the Union sailors intensified the fighting. The dead were thrown to the port side and the wounded were carried below. The decimated gun crews managed to fire three solid broadsides from a distance of less than a hundred yards, but despaired when these failed to pierce the ironclad’s armor.

The Virginia replied with her own barrage and now the Cumberland’s gun deck took on a ghastly appearance, powder-blackened and slippery with blood, strewn with shattered bodies and debris. Nevertheless, it was only when the sinking ship’s bow ports submerged to within a foot of so of the water that the order was finally given to abandon ship. Water filling the breach opened by the Virginia’s ram in the forward starboard quarter now caused the warship to lurch forward and she plunged, bow first, to the bottom of the river, carrying 121 crewman down with her.

Although the Virginia had prevailed, her victory was not so completely one-sided as it first appeared. Despite the Cumberland’s inability to penetrate the enemy’s armor plate, she managed to inflict considerable damage by firing at the gunports, thereby disabling two cannons, killing two men, and wounding about 15 others, including Captain Buchanan. Furthermore, the ironclad’s smokestack was riddled with holes, causing not only a reduction in speed but fouling the air below deck which interfered with the service of the cannons. And of course, the steamer had lost that critical component of her arsenal the ram.

When dawn broke on March 8, 1862, it heralded not only a day of destiny for the crews of the federal blockading squadrons at Hampton Roads, Virginia, but the advent of a new era-the modern age of naval warfare. The helplessness of wooden-hulled sailing vessels against the onslaught of ironclad steamers was most graphically demonstrated in the tragic confrontation between the Confederate States Ship Virginia, better known as the Merrimack, and the U.S.S. Cumberland. By sunset that afternoon the Union fleet had been decimated, the Cumberland lay battered on the bottom of the James River, along with much of her valiant crew, and the course of naval history had been altered permanently.

Historians have paid far more attention to the legendary battle that took place the following day between the Merrimack and the Monitor. But the significance of the first day’s fighting in the Battle of Hampton Roads in some ways surpassed that of the second. When the Monitor’s crew members petitioned Congress in the early 1880s to grant them prize money for allegedly disabling the Merrimack, a former sailor on the Confederate vessel contended that “If prize money is to be awarded …let it be given to the gallant officers and crew of the Cumberland, which went down with her colors flying after doing nearly all the damage sustained by the Merrimack on the 8th and 9th of March, 1862:”

The Cumberland had been one of the proudest vessels in the federal fleet. Built at the Boston Navy Yard and launched in May 1842, the three masted, 175-foot-long warship’s career spanned nearly two decades during most of which she served as flagship of the Home, Mediterranean or African Squadrons. In 1856 she was brought to the New York Navy Yard where she was converted from a frigate to a sloop of war by cutting down one deck, and her armament was refitted. Twenty-two nine inch, smoothbore Dahlgrens replaced the eight-inch and 32-pounder cannons on the gun deck, and the spar deck battery of 32-pounders was exchanged for two ten-inch smoothbore pivot guns, one in the bow, the other at the stern. With the later substitution of a formidable 70-pounder rifle for the aft pivot gun, these weapons constituted the battery that the Cumberland carried for the remainder of her career until her fateful encounter with the Merrimack.

The Merrimack was constructed as a steam frigate and was first launched in 1855, also from the Boston Navy Yard. In the years to come the two ships would cross paths several times and their fortunes, good and bad, came to be strangely intertwined. In April 1861 both the Merrimack and the Cumberland were docked at the Gosport Navy Yard in Norfolk, Virginia. Fearing Virginia’s secession and the seizure of the yard by the Confederates, the federal government decided to evacuate and burn the facility. The Cumberland was towed out to safety, but the Merrimack, despite the protests of a few farsighted Union officers, was scuttled before the yard was set ablaze. The steam frigate settled on the bottom so that only her upper works were destroyed by the fire. The Confederates had little difficulty resurrecting the hull and, like the phoenix, she rose from her ashes to become one of the two most invincible warships that the world had yet seen.

The conversion of the Merrimack to an exclusively steam-powered, heavily armored ironclad required the better part of a year. Her trial launch, in which she was re-christened the C.S.S. Virginia, took place in February 1862, but it was another three weeks before her captain, Franklin Buchanan, could secure sufficient powder for her guns. Buchanan’s plan was to slip out of the Elizabeth River under cover of darkness and surprise the federal blockading fleet at daybreak. His primary objective was to ram the Cumberland, whose “new rifled guns”-actually she carried only the one 70-pounder rifle-the captain considered to be “the only ones in their whole fleet we have cause to fear.” March 8 dawned clear and bright. It was a day, a Virginia gunner would later recall, “too beautiful to be bathed in the blood of our fellow men, but thus it was so.”

For months the men of the Cumberland had been aware of the metamorphosis the Virginia was undergoing, and they had drilled all winter in preparation for the combat that would inevitably ensue when the ironclad emerged. The awesome responsibility of command fell on the executive officer, Lieutenant George U. Morris. Upon first sighting the ironclad, the “quick beat” to quarter; was sounded and all hands moved to battle stations.

When the Confederate ironclad faced her Union counterpart on March 9 she was not the same vessel that had advanced into battle the previous day. Some, including high-ranking U.S. Navy officers, have since doubted whether the Monitor, also in a weakened condition as a result of a rough sea passage, would have fared as well against the Virginia as she did had it not been for the sacrifices of the Cumberland and her crew.

As the Cumberland settled on the bottom of the James River, across the Atlantic another ship that would before long share her burial ground was being born. First of the foreign built Confederate commerce raiders that dealt a blow to the American merchant marine from which it has never recovered, the C.S.S. Florida began her career, pursued it, and ended it amid a flurry of international controversy. She was constructed in secret during 1861 and 1862 in Liverpool under the name Oreto, a ruse contrived to help persuade the British authorities ( who could not by law permit the outfitting of warships for belligerent powers ) that she was intended for service in the Italian navy. Using a British dispatch gunboat for the basic hull model, the vessel was designed for speed and maneuverability. As a transitional type in the evolution of marine propulsion, it could operate under both sail and stream. It was also fitted with a retractable screw, or propeller, to reduce drag when cruising on wind power alone.

On March 22,1862, the Oreto was put to sea and sailed to the Bahamas where John N. Maffitt assumed command for the Confederate Navy, christened the vessel the Florida, and surreptitiously loaded ammunition and a battery of guns consisting of six six-inch and two seven-inch Blakely rifles and one 12-pound Howitzer. The Florida’s first cruise in January 1863 was highly successful. Twenty-five merchant ships were taken, including the Jacob Bell and the Oneida, whose cargo values were estimated at a million and a half and one million dollars, respectively. Three of the captured vessels were given prize crews, operated as “satellites” of the Florida, and accounted for an additional 22 ship seizures. By August 1863, the Florida’s hull and engines needed a major overhaul.

Maffitt wanted to have the work done in an English shipyard, but in view of the problems associated with British neutrality he elected instead to put into the French port of Breast. Although he estimated that the repairs would only take about 18 days, a series of complications kept the Florida from sailing for over five months. Despite vehement objections by the U.S. government, the French were extremely solicitous of the Confederates during their lengthy stay. When American officials complained that the work being conducted on the commerce raider’s machinery could not be considered necessary or justifiable repairs in a neutral facility-formally protesting on the grounds that the Florida had captured as many prizes under sail as under steam-Napoleon 111 himself offered the sarcastic rejoinder, “Because a duck can swim is no reason why his wings should be cut.”

During the extended layover in Breast, Maffitt’s health deteriorated to the point where he had to ask to be relieved from duty. His replacement also became too ill to continue and the command was assigned to Lieutenant Charles M. Morris. An essentially new and inexperienced crew helped Morris launch the refurbished raider in February 1864. The second cruise was not nearly as successful as the first. Only 13 prizes were captured, due to the fact that there were considerably fewer ships of U.S. registry at sea in 1864 than in 1863-testimony to the effectiveness of the Florida and her sister ships in striking at the heart of the Union merchant fleet.

The Florida’s career ended in October 1864 when she was rammed and hijacked by the U.S.S. Wachusett in the South American port of Bahia in defiance of Brazilian neutrality. The Confederate vessel was towed back to the United States to an anchorage off lower Newport News where she quietly sank under mysterious circumstances on the morning of November 28, 1864.

Although a U.S. government investigation concluded that the loss of the vessel was due to mechanical factors (leakage and pump failure), it was more likely the result of a deliberate attempt on the part of the Union high command to put an end to the international furor that had been created by the Florida’s abduction from a neutral port and the Brazilian government’s subsequent demand for her safe return. Years later, John N. Maffitt reported that in a conversation after the war with David D. Porter, Rear Admiral of the North Atlantic Squadron in 1864, the Union officer admitted giving the order to scuttle “that Rebel craft:”

After the Battle of Hampton Roads, the federal government was anxious to determine the feasibility of raising the sunken remains of the Cumberland. As early as March 21, 1862, a New York salvage firm had been approached, but the actual preliminary examination of the wreck was conducted in May by Massachusetts salvage diver Loring Bates. His report, the earliest account of conditions on the sunken warship, stated that “the Cumberland lies in sixty-six feet of water deeply imbedded [sic] in the mud healed [sic] to an angle of forty five …the water is very thick and it was with some difficulty that we could get about …every thing appears in confusion:

“Bates concluded that the damage sustained by the vessel was too extensive to justify the cost of raising Accordingly, the government sold the rights of recovery to a succession of salvage firms whose effort over the course of a decade met with limited or, at best, questionable success. The primary objective was to retrieve the paymaster’s safe, reportedly containing a minimum of $40,000 in gold specie. Despite a Detroit salvage company’s claim to have located and raised the safe in 1875, George B. West, a Newport News resident whose memoirs contain the only known eyewitness account of post-Civil War salvage activities in the Hampton Roads area, observed that no one ever “knew what was done with the safe, and it was never reported that any gold was taken from it.”

West’s ‘Memoirs also offer a rare glimpse of the modus operandi of the nineteenth-century salvage diver as well as the hazards associated with his profession. A German salvor’s plan to reach the safe was to begin under the stern of the wreck I and progressively blow his way-by detonating a series of charges-to the paymaster’s cabin. Today we can only marvel at the daring of such men who, before the invention of portable “submarine lamps” in 1871, were required to grope in the utter darkness while risking the perils of cave-ins and mechanical failures associated with their crude and cumbersome breathing apparatus.

West reported that the German was actually brought up unconscious several times and observed that, though he was a “splendid looking fellow” when they first met, “this deepwater diving injured his health, and he reduced rapidly and did not live long.” Regrettably, official reports concerning the progress and extent of post-war salvage operations, both government and private, are virtually nonexistent, particularly for the Florida. Only George West’s account informs us that the commerce raider was “stripped by divers” after the war. Unfortunately, West, who witnessed much of this operation, declined to elaborate on the nature of these activities except to remark that “She [the Florida] must have been magnificently built, for the divers said the state rooms were very handsomely decorated:’ Documentary evidence suggests that all the major salvage efforts concluded within a decade after the end of the war, and from that point on the memory of the Cumberland and the Florida-the glory of their exploits as well as the location of their remains-quickly faded. Except for beef periods of revived interest in the 1920s and the 1960s, both the Union warship and the Confederate raider reined out of sight and, for the most part, out of mind.

In the early part of 1980 Clive Cussler, popular novelist (Raise the Titanic, Deep Six and other adventure thrillers and chairman of the board of the National Underwater and Marine Agency (NUMA) -a private, non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of maritime heritage-decided to actively pursue his long-standing interest in the two ships. He hired a Washington-based researcher and contacted a local historian who had calculated probable locations for the sunken vessels based on a correlation.

However, Riley described how he first discovered the wreck four or five years earlier when he lost a pair of clam tongs on a “hang” in the James River and how, in an effort to retrieve them, he recovered a brass sword hilt and handle decorated with an eagle and fish scale pattern, a design emblematic of the U.S. Navy prior to and including the Civil War years. He had also tonged from the site a large copper-alloy cylinder which bore a notable resemblance to a section of bilge pump pipe depicted in the builder’s plans of the Cumberland. Furthermore, the clammer estimated the depth of the wreckage to be about 65 feet, very close to the figure submitted by Loring Bates in 1862.

Riley’s artifacts and his description of the location and depth of the site clearly warranted a first-hand investigation, the clammer offered to help. Several days later he shortened his dawn-to-dusk workday to transport a UAJV dive team to the site. Without the benefit of instrumentation, Riley moored the clam boat over a spot where his visual calculation of land bearings indicated that the wreck was lying. It mattered little that the sun was setting as the archaeologists plunged into the water, since daylight rarely penetrates more than 30 feet or so beneath the surface of the James, even at high noon.

The divers soon appreciated the waterman’s accuracy in reckoning the position of the site. When they reached the bottom they discovered bits of scattered wooden debris. As they extended their search line to begin a systematic sweep of the river bed, they encountered an area of concentrated wreckage dominated by massive wooden timbers protruding eerily out of the mud at odd angles in the murky gloom. Groping amid the debris, archaeologists searched for evidence that might help to establish the ship’s identity. Several of the artifacts gathered from the surface of the site proved to be particularly significant. The bottom of a white ironstone plate fragment bearing the manufacturer’s name, John Alcock, and his mark, a crowned shield flanked by a lion on one side and a unicorn on the other, established the sherd as a product of the Staffordshire Potteries in England between 1853 and 1861. A remarkably well preserved pair of brass gunner’s calipers, a device used to measure the diameter of cannon bores and projectiles, was practically identical to the standard type listed in the US. Army Ordnance Manual of 1862.

Another armament-related object that had survived in surprisingly good condition was a sabot, a solid cylinder composed of a single block of wood with a flat lower surface and a concave upper one. Its function was to insure, through its use in conjunction with iron straps, that a ball would be seated in the bottom of a cannon bore with the fuse facing toward the muzzle in order to prevent explosion in the tube upon firing. Though the iron straps had corroded completely, their former presence was attested to by iron concretions and rust stain covering much of the wooden surface The sabot’s most intriguing feature, however, was its nine-inch diameter, corresponding as it did to the bore of the 22 smoothbore cannons that constituted the greatest part of the Cumberland’s broadside battery on March 8, 1862.

Though by no means definitive, the evidence of the artifacts suggested that the wreck, which was designated the Pier C Site, represented the remains of an American warship dating to the third quarter of the nineteenth century. Moreover, the location of the wreckage and the failure of documentary research to indicate the presence of any other sunken vessels in the immediate vicinity further reinforced the hypothesis that the Pier C Site was, in fact, the final resting place of the Cumberland. Considering the condition of the non-ferrous metals and organic materials that had been recovered, UAJV team members were optimistic that further investigation would yield additional evidence regarding the ship’s identity. Also encouraged by the implications of this preservation for the survival of the Florida’s remains, the archaeologists decided to take leave of the Pier C site temporarily to search for the lost commerce raider.

Working on the supposition that the wreck just examined was actually that of the Union warship, UAJV investigators further reduced the dimensions of the survey area to include only the section upstream of Pier C, since George West’s account of the post-war salvage operations indicated that the Florida was lying in that direction relative to the Cumberland. By operating the recording fathometer while crisscrossing the search area with survey lanes parallel, perpendicular and diagonal to the shoreline, the crew detected only one significant anomaly located approximately 500 yards upriver and offshore of the Pier C Site. The series of peaks that appeared on the fathometer paper were much less dramatic than those recorded on the previous site, but the location, almost directly offshore of the Home Brothers Shipyard pier, closely corresponded to the landmarks identified in West’s memoirs.

Investigators positioned the survey vessel over the center of the anomaly and dropped a buoy where the recording fathometer registered its highest peak. A pair of divers descended to examine the site, confirmed the presence of concentrated debris, and recovered several artifacts: a liquor bottle, dated stylistically to the third quarter of the nineteenth century; a leather bayonet scabbard; and a hinged, copper alloy hoop of unknown function, perhaps part of one of the brass ornaments that decorated the Florida’s staterooms.

Cussler then entered into a cooperative arrangement with the state archaeological agency, the Virginia Research Center for Archaeology (VRCA ), which offered to supply diving archaeologists to help conduct a search for the two wreck sites. The joint NUMA/VRCA undertaking established a survey area of one mile by one quarter mile in the lower James River which, according to the research, seemed to offer the greatest potential for containing the remains of the sunken vessels. Using a proton magnetometer and a recording fathometer to detect ferrous and contour anomalies in the muddy river bed, and following up these procedures with first-hand examinations, the 1980 survey team was still unable to discover the location of either wreck.

With undiminished enthusiasm for the project, the following year NUMA contracted with Underwater Archaeological Joint Ventures (UAJV), a private firm operated by archaeologists based in Yorktown, Virginia, to search for the ships and, if successful in locating them, to attempt to gather sufficient data to verify their identities. NUMA and UAJV jointly applied for and were granted a permit by the Virginia Marine Resources and Historic Landmarks Commissions to conduct survey and limited recovery activities in the James River.

UAJV concentrated its initial efforts in two areas. A review of the previous research persuaded the group that the length of the 1980 survey perimeter could be substantially reduced and that the center of the new search area should be established in the offshore vicinity of the Home Brothers Shipyard and the Virginia Port Authority piers. Project members contacted local watermen, charter boat captains, clammers and crabbers – hoping to obtain information about the recovery of artifacts or irregularities in the river bottom that might indicate the presence of a wreck site. Interviews led investigators to Wilbur Riley, a veteran clammer of the York and James Rivers, who reportedly knew the location of a wreck near the Port Authority’s Pier C and had retrieved a number of objects from it. For the archaeologists, similar reports regarding shipwrecks, cannons and even sunken treasure in Virginia waters in the past had almost invariably proved to be without foundation.

Now that two potentially significant sites had been located, there remained the task of trying to identify them by recording and interpreting site features, and by collecting and analyzing diagnostic artifacts. Environmental circumstances, however, posed formidable obstacles: swift currents and poor visibility hindered almost all aspects of the underwater operations, particularly on-site recording and measuring over long distances. Water depth, over 60 feet at both sites, restricted daily bottom time without decompression stops to barely over an hour for each member of the four-man dive team. Decompression diving was considered too risky because of the location of both sites near the center of the river channel in an area where ship traffic is often heavy. Even so, the hulls and propeller blades of the freighters, tankers, and barges which regularly make their way up and down the river represented a constant source of concern to divers during ascent and descent.

By far the greatest cause of consternation, however, was the frequent disappearance of site-marking buoys which were inadvertently dragged away by passing vessels during the night. Loss of the site marker was often accompanied by the disruption of lines that archaeologists had established on the bottom to serve as lifelines and tactile road maps in the murky depths.

Despite these difficulties, the UAJV team succeeded in recording enough information to construct a rudimentary plan comprising a major portion of the Home Brothers Site. Initial investigations focused on a section of nearly intact deck planking, running fore and aft approximately parallel to the Newport News shoreline, at the downriver end of the wreck. A preliminary examination of this area revealed a massive, cylindrical, iron object over four feet in diameter, believed to be the foundation support for a mizzenmast, which divers used as a reference and departure point for subsequent exploratory work.

Other significant features in this vicinity included a small scuttle -a circular floor opening used to facilitate the transfer of materials between decks-and, at the downriver extent of concentrated wreckage, the deteriorated remains of a large hatch-type opening. In view of its location and its sloping interior surfaces, it was thought to represent the lowest portion of an aperture intended to accommodate a retractable propeller.

The inspection of an exterior section of ship’s hull adjacent to and inshore of the decking revealed the presence of copper sheathing used as protection against marine worms, indicative of a position below the vessel’s waterline. Unfortunately, the only known set of construction plans for the Florida consist solely of a plan (overhead) view of the main deck and a sheer (longitudinal) inboard profile of the entire vessel. Thus, the features observed on the deck of the Home Brothers Site cannot easily be compared with documented characteristics of the commerce raider. The corresponding level on the Florida would have to be the berth deck, though, since it was the only one, according to the sheer plan, that was both situated below the waterline.

Archaeologists examined over 120 feet of the inshore hull line from its downriver terminus to where it disappeared beneath sedimentary overburden and could no longer be detected. A number of features observed during the measuring and recording process proved to be consistent with the Florida’s general structural characteristics: relatively small frames, six and-a-half by seven inches, indicative of the light construction typically associated with cruisers as opposed to large warships or merchantmen; engine apparatus, consisting of a copper-alloy intake valve running through the hull 15 feet directly to the starboard side of two large, adjacent cylinders which appeared to be boilers; and an athwartships width of 23 feet, as measured across the exposed decking near the stern end, that compared favorably with the 27 foot beam; or widest breadth, of the Florida’s main deck.

Artifacts collected from the surface of the site conformed, in terms of age, type and function, to what one would expect to find aboard a Confederate commerce raider in general and aboard the Florida in particular. Significant among the armament related objects were two ammunition boxes, one containing 119 lead balls comprising five calibers of round shot and the other holding over 400 fifty-six (.56) caliber Enfield bullets (most of which still retained a wooden plug recessed into the back end); a brass 1848 model Brunswick bayonet handle; and a small cannon fuse. Arms and munitions of British manufacture such as the Enfield bullets and the bayonet handle were used by both sides during the Civil War, but more commonly by the Confederacy which had a greater dependency on the importation of foreign war materiel. More specifically, the cannon fuse was of a type inserted in shells used in Blakely rifles like those that constituted the Florida’s main battery.

The assemblage also included various types of fasteners and fittings, liquor and apothecary bottles, and drinking as well as serving vessels. Of particular interest were a pewter pitcher with a silver handle and top, a brass porthole with a glass window, a wooden box with a faintly discernible printed or burnished label, and a small apothecary bottle whose yellow liquid contents had remained undisturbed for nearly a century and a quarter. Two wooden pulley blocks may suggest a more specific association with the Florida. If they were used in connection with sail rigging, as was most often the case, then this, combined with the evidence of engine machinery, would establish the vessel as a sail/steamer such as we know the Florida to have been. A less speculative link between the wreck site and the commerce raider, however, was provided by the recovery of a small white ceramic pharmaceutical jar bearing the seal of the Paris School of Pharmacy as well as the druggist’s name and his business address in Brest, reminiscent of the commerce raider’s protracted sojourn in that French port.

With the scheduled end of the survey approaching, the UAJV team curtailed its investigation of the Horne Brothers Site and returned to the Pier C wreck. Unfortunately, an accelerated loss of sitemarking buoys and unexpectedly difficult conditions on the wreck itself thwarted efforts to conduct a thoroughly comprehensive examination of the site. Unlike the Horne Brothers wreck, which settled in the river bed on a more or less even keel with relatively little sediment over most of its surface, much of the Pier C Site lay deeply buried. Many of the areas which were accessible appeared to be in a state of inextricable disarray.

But just as the essentially undisturbed condition of the Horne Brothers Site were consistent with the Florida’s peaceful demise, the same conditions that frustrated archaeologists in their attempts to map and record the Pier C Site also supported its identification with the remains of the Cumberland. The damage sustained by the Union warship during her violent encounter with the Virginia, subsequently compounded by the destructive efforts of the salvors, could easily account for the chaotic situation observed on the Pier C wreck. Furthermore, the abnormally heavy and unusual sedimentary deposits covering much of the site-more granular than the fine silt and soft mud ordinarily found on the river bottom-coincided with George West’s testimony that sometime after the documented salvage activities an enormous quantity of dredge spoil was dumped over the wreck, prompting the chronicler to conclude that “no doubt now the boat is entirely covered over.”

The longitudinal axis of the wreck was found to lie approximately perpendicular to the shoreline-in accord with contemporary accounts of the Cumberland’s position as she engaged the Virginia with a considerable downriver list estimated at about forty degrees, similar to Loring Bates’ 1862 assessment.

On-site investigations also produced a small array of artifacts that contributed significantly to the dating and identification of the wreck. The assemblage, most of it armament-related, included two oddly shaped brass objects that functioned as touch hole covers for cannons. One of the covers bore the impressed markings “U.S.N.Y. 1856 Ord. Dept. J.A.D. No. 32,” signifying its derivation from the ordnance department of a federal navy yard; the year in which the Cumberland was extensively refitted in just such a facility; and the initials of John A. Dahlgren, commander of the federal Ordnance Department from 1855 to 1861. The “32″ may correspond to the battery of 32-pounders on the Cumberland’s spar and gun decks when she was brought to the New York Navy Yard for renovation in 1856.

Two unique artifacts which evoke a sense of the drama and pathos associated with the warship’s last stand are a small wooden frame, custom fitted around a broken piece of mirror glass-fashioned, no doubt by a common seaman for his personal use-and a magnificent ship’s bell, one-and-a-half feet high and cast in bronze. The imaginative viewer can envision it tolling the warship’s death knell as she succumbed to the Virginia’s deadly assault and descended to her watery grave.

Despite the difficulties encountered in the preliminary survey, both UAJV and NUMA investigators felt confident that the collected data concerning the condition, location, and physical properties of the wrecks constituted persuasive evidence to indicate that the Home Brothers and Pier C Sites do, in fact, represent the remains of the C.S.S. Florida and the U.S.S. Cumberland.

When field activities ceased, NUMA, which had already offered to donate all materials recovered during the project to the state, additionally contributed the necessary funds for conservation of the assemblage. Many of the artifacts have since been displayed at the Mariners Museum in Newport News and at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum in Norfolk. Both the Home Brothers and Pier C Sites have been nominated for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places-an important first step toward safeguarding these unique monuments to a pivotal and momentous period in American naval and nautical history.

Discovery of the Cumberland

The discovery and survey project on the Union frigate, Cumberland, and Confederate raider, Florida. July 1982.

Since we knew where the Florida rested, and had a good idea on the Cumberland site, I felt it was time for a professional survey conducted by a team of expert archaeologists. NUMA then contracted with the four former archaeologists from the state of Virginia, who dove with us during the ’81 expedition. Sam Margolin, Mike Warner, Dick Swete, and Jim Knickerbocker made up the Underwater Archaeological Joint Ventures survey team.

They performed admirably. Rather than comment, I’ll simply let Sam Margolin’s article and the report written by Mike Warner and the others stand alone. After the survey was completed and the artifacts recovered, John Broadwater and the State of Virginia Landmarks Department, who had offered to handle the conservation of the artifacts, backed out and claimed they had no money. At this point all the artifacts were in holding tanks inside rented garage space.

Not wishing to see them disintegrate and be trashed, I worked out a deal with the College of William & Mary to preserve them. They did a remarkable job and charged me far less than originally estimated. I then donated all the artifacts to John Sands, the director of the Newport News Mariners Museum, which has to be the finest and largest in the country.

The museum people built a most attractive display for the viewing public.

Then after about six months, some admiral with the odd nickname of Beetle something or other and Mike Curtin, the rotund, heavy jowled curator of the Norfolk Naval museum marched up to John Sands and demanded he turn over, as they generously put it, “our artifacts”.

Demonstrating arrogance with little grace, they threatened to go to court in order to claim artifacts whose recovery they offered no contribution whatsoever.

Displaying a bureaucratic lack of fortitude, Broadwater and the State caved in. The story is they didn’t want to upset the navy, who was responsible for thousands of jobs in and around the tidewater basin.

So now the artifacts sit in the Norfolk Naval Museum. Though the navy thinks they belong to them, the truth is that all U.S. Naval ships sold for salvage and stricken from commission belong to the General Services Administration.

What thanks did NUMA and UAJV receive for their efforts to preserve our country’s maritime heritage from a grateful government?

Ingratitude, rejection and antipathy.

Is it any wonder many of us no longer vote?

Discovery and Survey Project

The discovery and survey project on the Union frigate, Cumberland, and Confederate raider, Florida.


The subject of this report is the most recent effort to locate the remains of two famous ships of the American Civil War, the C.S.S. Florida and the U.S.S. Cumberland. Largely forgotten for the nearly 120 years after the ships sank, the National Underwater and Marine Agency (NUMA) revived interest in the two vessels in 1980. In the summer of that year, NUMA performed a magnetometer survey and in conjunction with the Virginia Research Center for Archaeology (VRCA) conducted a physical search for the wrecks in the James River off lower Newport News with negative results. The following year NUMA contracted with Underwater Archaeological Joint Ventures (UAJV) to attempt once again to locate and, if possible, identify the sunken vessels. On behalf of NUMA, UAJV applied to the Virginia Marine Resources and Historic Landmarks Commissions for a permit to conduct a Phase I archaeological survey in the James River. The permit was granted in June 1981 and UAJV commenced search and survey activities during the same month.

Historical Background


Built at the Boston Navy Yard and launched in May 1842, the Cumberland’s distinguished career encompassed nearly three decades during most of which she served as flagship of the Home, Mediterranean, or African squadron, In April of 1861 she was towed out of the Gosport Navy Yard when the Union forces burned and abandoned the Norfolk facility in anticipation of its seizure by the Confederates.

In the early part of 1862 the Cumberland was stationed off Camp Butler in Newport News, Va. as part of the Union squadron blockading the James River. In 1856 she had been brought to the New York Navy Yard where she was razeed and her armament refitted. At the time of her final encounter she was carrying a 70 lb. rifle, a 10 in. smoothbore Dahlgren pivot gun both fore and aft, and a broadside battery comprising twenty-two 9 in. Dahlgrens.

The sinking of the Cumberland on March 8, 1862 was one of the more dramatic moments of the Civil War (see Fig. 1). Her captain was absent that day, presiding at a court martial on board the U.S.S. Roanoke, and the command devolved upon the executive officer, Lt. George U. Morris. That the battle with the Merrimac would really be no contest became apparent when the Confederate ship’s guns raked the deck of the U.S.S. Congress, inflicting severe-casualties, and the return fire failed to penetrate, or even seriously damage, the ironclad’s armor.

The Merrimac’s captain asked Morris to surrender, to which he replied “Never! I’ll sink alongside!” and gave orders to commence firing. The ironclad steamed directly towards the Cumberland and rammed her in the forward starboard quarter. The Merrimac backed off, breaking her recently extended prow in the process. The pnion ship lurched and her main deck began to sink beneath the waters of the James River, but not before she had fired a series of broadsides, killing or wounding nineteen men and causing more damage to the ironclad than she sustained at any other time in her combat career. Within a short time the Cumberland had settled on the river bottom with only her flag and mainmast top still visible above the waves.- Over 120 members of her brave crew accompanied the proud warship on this final descent.


Less than two years later and only a short distance upstream of the sunken remains of the Cumberland, another famous casualty of the Civil War came to rest on the bottom of the James River.

First of the foreign built Confederate commerce raiders (see Fig. 2), the C.S.S. Florida began, often pursued, and ended her career amidst a flurry of international controversy. She was constructed in secret during 1861-62 in Liverpool, England under the name Oreto, a ruse intended to help persuade the English authorities, who could not by law permit the outfitting of warships for belligerent powers, that she was intended for service in the Italian navy.

The commerce raider was designed to operate under both sail and steam and was fitted with a retractable screw to provide greater speed when cruising on wind power alone. A British dispatch gunboat was used for the basic hull model. The Foreign Enlistment Act prohibited the British from supplying the Florida with guns and ammunition within their territorial waters, but when these were subsequently furnished in the Caribbean in August 1862 the raider’s battery consisted of six 6 in. and two 7 in. Blakely rifles and one 12 lb. Howitzer.

The Confederate ship was launched in March 1862 and sailed to the Bahamas where John Newland Maffitt assumed command, surreptitiously loaded guns and ammunition, and officially christened the vessel as the Florida on August 17. Since an outbreak of yellow fever had reduced the numbers of the already undermanned crew and as a result of the failure to secure some of the equipment required to fire the guns, the captain considered it essential to reach a Confederate port. He consequently made the bold decision, to dun the Union blockade in Mobile Bay, a feat which would have been difficult under any circumstances, but one made all the more dangerous by the raider’s inability to defend herself. Nevertheless, Maffitt succeeded in reaching Mobile with only minor damage to the ship and relatively few casualties among the crew.

After making the necessary acquisitions, repairs, and personnel changes, Maffitt managed to elude the blockaders on his way out of the bay in January 1863 and began to prey on Union merchant shipping. The Florida’s first cruise was highly successful, capturing twenty.-five merchant-ships including the Jacob Bell and the Oneida, whose cargo values were estimated at a million and a half and one million dollars, respectively. Two of the captured vessels were given prize crews and operated as ‘satellites’ or ‘outfits’ of the Florida. Their activities resulted in the conversion of another prize to a satellite and the three outfits together accounted for an additional twenty-two ship seizures.

By August 1863, the Florida’s hull and engines were in need of a major overhaul. Maffitt wanted to have the work done in an English facility, but the international political situation was such that this could not be done anytime soon, so he elected to put into the French port of Brest. The captain estimated that the repairs would only take about eighteen days, but, because of a series of complications, the Florida wasn’t able to set sail for over five months. During this time Maffitt’s health deteriorated to the point that he had to ask to be relieved. His replacement, J. N. Barney, also became too ill to continue and the command was assigned to Lt. Charles M. Morris.

Morris and his largely new and inexperienced crew launched the Florida on her second cruise in February 1864. They succeeded in avoiding the U.S.S. Kearearge, which had been stalking the raider for several months (much to the consternation of the French authorities), by waiting until the Union ship had to put into another port to re-supply. (The Kearsarge subsequently gained fame by sinking the most famous of the Confederate commerce raiders-and sister ship to the Florida, the C.S.S. Alabama, off the coast of France). The second cruise was not nearly as successful as the first. The fact that only thirteen prizes were captured may be attributed to the fact that there were considerably fewer; ships of American. registry at sea in 1864 than in 1863.

The Florida’s career ended in October 1864 when she was rammed and hijacked by the U.S.S. Wachussett in the South American port of Bahia in defiance of Brazilian neutrality. The Confederate vessel was towed out of the harbor and taken to Hampton Roads, Virginia where she sank under mysterious circumstances on the morning of November 28, 1864, most probably the result of a deliberate attempt on the part of the Union high command to stifle the international furor which had been created by the Florida’s abduction from a neutral port.

Remote Sensing

In the spring of 1981 members of UAJV began contacting local watermen in hopes of gaining information about shipwrecks in the Hampton Roads area. Most of the watermen we spoke with were cooperative and one in particular, Wilbur Riley of Hayes, Virginia, claimed to know the location of the U.S.S. Cumberland. In the evening of June 22 Mr. Hiley guided us, without the benefit of any instrumentation, to within 15 yards of what appeared to be a 19th century warship located off Pier C approximately 1.4 miles northwest of Newport News Point.

Based on the information gathered during the 1980 magnetometer survey as well as from historical research conducted by NUMA, UAJY, and Dr. Chester Bradley, a remote sensing survey was performed in the area indicated in Fig. 3 subsequent to our brief investigation of the Pier C site.

The survey instrument employed was a 200 Khz Sitex 256 He straight line recording fathometer. Survey lanes were run perpendicular to shore with lane spacing of approximately 50o. Target locations were recorded with Loran C latitude and longitude (for crew reference), visual sightings, and compass bearings (Fig. 4 & 5). Only two major targets were detected during the survey (Fig. 6 & 7), one-off Pier, C (NN 73) corresponding to the wreck shown to us by the local waterman and the other lying approximately 600 yards upriver of the first, offshore of Horne Brothers’ shipyard (NN 72).


Adverse physical conditions in the survey area posed significant problems for diving and systematic recording on both sites. The size and prevalence of ship traffic in the Newport News channel created serious diving hazards and caused the displacement or loss of many buoys and lines on the two wrecks (Fig. 11). As a result, much time and effort was expended in the relocation of sites and the reestablishment of mooring and guide lines.

Depth, currents, and poor visibility also hampered the on-site work. Because both wrecks lie at depths in excess of 63 ft., no decompression repetitive bottom times were restricted to a maximum of 1 hour and 20 minutes a day per diver. Currents occasionally achieved velocities greater than 2 knots and visibility was seldom in excess of 1o 6″.

On Site Methodology

Once the Horne Brothers site was located, a mooring line was set, anchored by a 150 lb. iron clunk from which exploratory search lines were extended. As significant features were encountered, gutter spikes were used to secure search lines so that features could be easily relocated. When the perimeter of the intact hull was found by running a line . perpendicular to the deck planking, we attempted to follow the hull as far as possible through probing.

A 100′ baseline was established parallel to the hull, 20′ inshore of the wreck. The baseline was used to triangulate the positions of six nails which we had secured to the intact hull at various intervals. The nails were in turn used as base points from which all features located within the hull could be triangulated (see site plan, Fig. 8). This two-step method of triangulation was employed in order to reduce the length of tape measure pulls, thereby maximizing the accuracy of our measurements.

Features observed and recorded on the Horne Brothers site include: a 121 ft. section of hull on the inshore side composed of 6J x 7 in. frames, 3 in. ceiling and 5 in. outer planking; a 16 ft. section of hull on the offshore side; a small scuttle in the deck with a 13 in. inner diameter; a large iron object 11 ft. x 5 ft. 6 in. consisting of two adjacent cylinders which may be boilers; and directly inshore of this,-a copper alloy through fitting 4J in. inner diameter, possibly an intake valve for the boilers. Among the other observed and recorded features are 2 hatchways, 2 ft. 8 in. and 5 ft. wide, fore and aft respectively of a massive, flat, circular iron object 4 ft. 3 in. in diameter.

Most of the objects recovered from the Horne Brothers site were recorded simply in reference to their general provenience. Those artifacts considered to be most significant in terms of diagnostic or historical value were triangulated to from points on the hull perimeter.

Many of the features located on the Horne Brothers site suggest that the wreck does, in fact, represent the remains of the C.S.S. Florida. The length of the Florida was 191 ft. from stem to stern with a beam of 27 ft. The length of intact wreckage is in excess of 135 ft. with scattered hull debris continuing both fore and aft. The 23 ft. width of the wreckage as measured on a deck level below the waterline (indicated by copper sheathing attached to the outer planking) compares favorably with the beam of the Florida’s main deck.

The presence of what appears to be engine apparatus as well as the rigging equipment (see artifacts section) observed on the site further suggests that this vessel was a sail/steamer such as we know the Florida to have been. Finally, an interesting (though at this point inconclusive) piece of evidence concerns planking samples recovered from the wreck which preliminary analysis indicates are made of mahogany. An eyewitness to the salvage work which was undertaken on the Florida after the war reported that fragments retrieved from the ship’s gunwale were constructed out of the same type of wood (West, 1977, p. 153).

The factor which contributed most significantly to our ability to gather information from the Horne Brothers site was the vessel’s relatively good state of preservation and accessibility. The wreck lies on a more or less even keel with a slight offshore list. There was very little sedimentary overburden in most of the areas we examined with the exception of the upriver end which appears to be largely submerged beneath the river bottom. The essentially undisturbed condition of the site is consistent with what we know of the Florida’s peaceful demise on the morning of November 28, 1864.

Quite the opposite was true with the Pier C site, however. Listing at about a 35 degree angle downstream, the wreck appears to have sustained considerable damage as well as having been covered with an unnatural sediment deposition in some areas. Although this situation and the limited amount of time we were able to spend examining the wreck made it impossible to construct a comprehensive site plan, the condition of the site does correspond to the documented reports concerning the Cumberland’s violent end, the destructive salvage efforts, and the dumping of large quantities of spoil over the wreck site (e.g. West, 1977, p. lss). Significant features observed on the site include the shaft of a large iron anchor, intact decking, and a long section of bilge pump pipe.

Following the completion of all on-site work, the positions of buoys marking known locations on both sites were shot in from land based transits during slack tide (Fig. 9). Divers tightened up excess play in the buoy lines in order to further minimize error during the transit operations. (Fig. 10)

Artifacts – Pier C Site

Small Arms

Artifacts recovered from Site NN 73 related to the use of small arms include: a Model 1844 brass federal naval cutlass hilt found in two pieces (PC/SC/9, Fig. 12B), a single ringed .38 caliber pistol bullet (PC/SC/11), a standard three-ringed .69 caliber rifled musket bullet (PC/SC/18, Fig. 12A), and a brass object discovered in two pieces consisting of 1J in, diameter tangential circles in linear series thought to have been part of a rifle rack (PC/SC/8).

Heavy Ordnance

Objects related to the use of heavy ordnance include . two cannon fuses (PC/SC/10, Fig. 12C), a wooden sabot (PC/SC/7, Fig. 15), and a pair of gunners calipers (PC/SC/5, Fig. 13 & 14). The fuses are 2~ in. long and are identical in shape to a type which is described as being marked on the head with the letters “ORD. D.” (Ordnance Department), an anchor, and a date between 1857 and 1864 (Ripley, 1970, p. 275 Fig. XII-45). Concreted corrosion products presently obscure the face of these fuse heads; it will be interesting to see if the markings are found, after mechanical cleaning, to correspond to those of the reference cited.

The sabot is a cylindrical object 3 in, high and 9 in. in diameter, composed of a single block of wood with a flat lower surface and a concave upper one. Its purpose was to- insure, insure, through its use in conjunction with metal straps, that a shell would be seated in the bottom of a cannon bore with the fuse facing towards the muzzle, thus preventing explosion in the tube.

The gunners calipers are composed of two strips of sheet brass connected at one end by a brass rivet. The two pieces together comprise a graduated circle around the pivot point which furnishes a diameter measurement in inches when the calipers are fitted around a projectile or cannon bore. The instrument was apparently deposited in the closed position, thus affording protection to the interior surfaces of the circular head from physical and galvanic corrosion and providing for the preservation of the inscribed words “Shat Dial” as well as many of the numbers and calibration marks. Calipers of this type normally had steel points (ordnance Manual, 1862) but they are absent from this specimen, probably as a result of having been electrolytically sacrificed to the nobler brass.

The functions of a copper alloy pan (PC/SC/13, 6 5/8 x 3 1/2 x 3,in.) with four corners as well as that of a larger tri-cornered one (PC/SC/12, 1 ft, x 6 in, x 3 1/2 in,) in which the former was found have thus far not been determined (Fig. 17 & 18). However, impressed markings on the exterior surfaces of the rounded bottoms of both vessels provide valuable information concerning identification and dating.

Those on the larger pan indicate that this one, at least, was intended for use in an ordnance related capacity. The inscriptions are as follows: PC/SC/13, “USNY 30″; PC/SC/12, “USNY, 1856 Ord. Dept. J.A.D. 32″.

Naval Issue, Personal, and Shipboard Items

The only artifact recovered which may relate to naval apparel is a small, ovular, and rather corroded piece of thin corrugated brass which is thought to be part of an epaulet (PC/SC/17, Fig. 12D).

A broken piece of mirror glass set into a small wooden rectangle,-7j in, x 6 in, x 1 in., represents what appears to be the sole personal possession in the assemblage (PC/SC/15, Fig. 16). The glass fits into a shallow recess in the wood which was obviously cut according to the odd dimensions of this specific fragment.

Among several white ironstone plate shards which were retrieved from Site NN 73, one, a piece which includes portions of both the rim and base, is of particular significance (PC/SC/12). The bottom contains the manufacturer’s name, John Alcock, and his mark, a crowned shield flanked by a lion on the left side and a unicorn on the right (Fig. 19). Our research indicates that John Alcock operated the Staffordshire Potteries in England between the years 1853 and 1861 (Godden, 1964, p, 27).

Perhaps the most dramatic of all the artifacts recovered from this wreck is a large copper alloy ship’s bell (PC/SC/14, Fig. 20), Standing 1 ft. 6 in, high with an outer base diameter of 19 in,, it does not contain a clapper which, if constructed of iron (as was usually the case), may have corroded in favor of the copper alloy bell material surrounding it. Twelve raised tinge were cast on the middle portion of the exterior surface, but the bell appears to bear no other intentional markings.

Dating and Identification

The dated copper alloy pan provides a tentative ‘terminus poet quern’ of .1856. Considered along with the Alcock plate fragment and the Civil War period armament related artifacts, it seems likely that most, if not all, of these, items derive from the original wreckage and do not represent intrusive elements on the site.

The high proportion of armament related artifacts in the assemblage, the styles of the cutlass hilt and cannon fuses, and the inscriptions on the pang all further suggest the presence of a federal naval vessel. The 9 in. diameter of the wooden sabot may be particularly significant, corresponding as it does to the bore of the greatest part of the Cumberland’s battery.

Artifacts – Horne Brothers Site

Fasteners, Fittings, and Rigging

Most of the fasteners collected from the site consist of copper colts flattened at both ends, ranging in length from 10 5/8 in. to 16 3/4 in. and in diameter from 5/8 in. to 1 in. (e.g. HB/SC/16,21, Fig. 21).These bolts, some of which still retain a washer at each end, were uses to secure inner and outer planking to the ship’s frame structure. Another type of fastener observed on the site is represented by a brass nail (HB/SC/34, Fig. 21B) 6 in. long; its specific function is presently unknown but it may have served to secure fixtures to decking or deck planks to deck beams.

Among the ship’s fittings recovered are an odd shaped copper alloy object with six 3i8 in. diameter countersunk fastening holes, possibly a chafing bit (HB/SCi34, Fig. 22), and part of a brass trim ring (HB/SC/31) discovered lying adjacent to the intact scuttle (see site plan, Fig, 8). Of particular interest is a bucket shaped artifact only 5 3/4 in, high and 6 15/16 in, across the open end with copper alloy sides and a 3/8 in, thick glass bottom (HH/SC/20, Fig. 23); it has been identified as a porthole, similar to ones which may still be observed aboard the U.S.S. Constitution in Boston.

Smaller fittings in the assemblage include what appears to be a small rail base (HB/SC/37), several types of hinges (HB/SC/53,54,55, Fig. 24), a hoop 13 in, in diameter constructed out of a hollow copper alloy tube attached to a brass hinge (HB/SC/3), and a small rectangular box with two open aides and a short lip running along the outer edge of one of the long sides (HB/SC/19).

Objects related to the ship’s rigging consist of a small (21 in, diameter) sheave (HB/SC/50), part of an unsheathed pulley (HB/SC/38), and both a single and double block (HB/SC/40, 35, Fig. 25). The sheaths of the latter two are constructed of four and seven separate pieces of wood, respectively, and the double block still contains fragments of rope around its sheaves.

Liquor Bottles, Drinking and Serving Vessels

Several liquor bottles considered by their size and shape to have once held whiskey (HB/SC/2) and champagne and/or wine (HB/SC/46, 32) were retrieved intact from the wreck (Fig. 27), One was discovered lying inside an open box on the outside of which the printed letters “C H A _ ` _ _ _, R E G A L A, 100″ could be faintly discerned (see Fig. 26), A base and fragments of one or more case bottles which may have carried either liquor or some medicinal liquid were also collected (HB/SC/13, 15, Fig. 27A) .

The assemblage additionally comprises a variety of drinking and serving vessels (see Fig. 27). The former group consists of a glass goblet base (HB/SC/7), an intact ceramic cup (HB/SC/59), and two ceramic cup fragments (HB/SC/5,6). Serving utensils are represented by a thick white ironstone fragment thought to be part of a platter (HB/SC/56) and a 13 in, high pewter pitcher (HB/SC/23, Fig. 28); upon recovery it was discovered that a wooden rod lay inside, having been driven (whether purposely or accidentally is unknown) through: the bottom, of the pitcher.

Apothecary Vessels

The half dozen intact glass apothecary bottles in the assemblage display a variety of sizes and forms (see Fig. 29). Dimensions range from 1 3/4 in. (HB/SC/12) to 7 in. high (HB/SC/36) and from as narrow as 1 1/16 in. (HB/SC/28) to as wide as 2 3/4 in. (HB/SC/36) base diameter. A diversity of stoppers is also apparent, comprising several glass types (HB/SC/10,11,30) as well as a cork still in place at the mouth of the smallest vial (HB/SC/12). One bottle, with its glass stopper firmly set, still retains the yellow liquid contents which have remained undisturbed for nearly 120 years (HB/SC/29, Fig. 29A).

Two white ceramic pharmaceutical vessels are of particular interest. One is a mortar, 2J in, high with a small lip in the rim for resting a pestle (HB/SC/4, -Fig. 29B), This artifact is very similar, perhaps identical, to one presented in The Civil War Collector’s Encyclopedia (Lord, 1966, pg. 165). The other, a small jar 2J in, high and 1 1/4 in. in diameter, i9 of special significance (Hk3/SC/24, Fig. 30), The seal of the Paris School of Pharmacy, the name of the druggist, and his business address in Brest are all printed in red on the vial’s exterior.


An assortment of military and naval paraphernalia, mostly related to the use of small arms, was also retrieved from Site NN 72. Articles associated with thrusting weapons include a leather sword scabbard, 1 ft. 11 in. long with a brass tip (HB/SC/1, Fig. 31), and a 4 1/4 in, multi-ribbed braes bayonet handle (HB/SC/52, Fig. 32A).

Items related to firearms are represented by a small pistol butt plate (HB/SC/48, Fig, 32B) and a “variety of small projectiles. All of the bullets were contained in two adjacent boxes which were also recovered . The box lids had either completely deteriorated or were washed away, but. the sides and bottoms remained relatively intact. The first box, 6 1/2 in, x 6 7/8 in, x 4 1/2 in, (HB/SC/42), contained five sizes. of lead round shot with measured diameters of approximately .309, .350, .377, .466, and .639 in. (HB/SC/41, Fig. 33 & 34). The second box (HB/SC/44, Fig. 35) held 418 blunt tipped .56 caliber lead Enfield bullets, most of which still retained a wooden plug recessed into the back end of the bullet to help it expand into the rifling of the barrel after firing. (HB/SC/ 45). Pieces of round shot corresponding to three of the caliber types identified from the first container were also discovered with the Enfield bullets, but these are believed to have spilled over from the former as a result of the deterioration of the top and aides of both boxes.

The sole recovered artifact connected with the use of ordnance is a 1 5/8 ft, long brass and lead cannon fuse with a hexagonal head (HB/SC/ 49, Fig, 32C). It has been identified as a type which was inserted in shells intended for use in Blakely rifles.

Personal Gear

Two leather items, a small strap with a retaining band (HB/SC/51) and a right shoe (HB/SC/33, Fig.36), constitute the only artifacts relating to personal gear or apparel which were collected from the site. The shoe is 10 3/4 in, in length, has eight brass or copper eyelets, and conforms in style to the “Jefferson Pattern” used by both sides during the war (Lord, 1965, p. 310).

Dating and Identification

The forms and styles of the liquor and apothecary bottles and vessels, arms and ammunition, and drinking and ‘serving vessels are all consistent with dates corresponding to the Civil War period or the years immediately preceding it.

The British-manufactured Enfield bullets were used by both sides during the War, but more so by the Confederacy which had a greater dependency on the importation of English arms and munitions. More specifically, the Blakely cannon fuse calls to mind the Florida’s battery which comprised mostly guns of this type, and the small white ceramic jar is further reminiscent of the commerce raiders lengthy stay in Brest.


In the summer of 1981 the National Underwater and Marine Agency contracted with Underwater Archaeological to 3 Joint Ventures to survey an area of the James River off lower Newport News which, research indicated, contained the wrecks of two famous Civil War vessels. The purpose of the project was to locate and, if possible, identify the remains of the highly successful Confederate commerce raider Florida, a sail/steamer which quietly sank under mysterious and controversial circumstances on Nov. 28, 1864, and the Union warship Cumberland, which was rammed and sunk by the ironclad Merrimac (C.S.S. Virginia) on March 8, 1862, thus becoming the first victim in the advent of the age of modern naval warfare.

With the assistance of a local waterman and through the use of electronic remote sensing equipment, the UAJY team succeeded in locating two shipwreck sites within the survey area, one off the Virginia Port Authority’s Pier C (NN 73) and one off the Horns Brotherte Shipyard Pier (NN 72). The locations of the two sites corresponds, respectively, to the positions of the Cumberland and the Florida as described by a contemporary observer of the salvage efforts which were undertaken on the vessels after the Civil War.

Observations regarding the condition of the wrecks as they lie on the river bottom are also consistent with historical documentation concerning the demise and subsequent salvage activities conducted on the two ships. Recorded dimensions and hull features of the Horns Brother’s site compare favorably with the plane and propulsion characteristics of the Florida; likewise, the less extensive examination of the Pier C site suggests its identity as that of the Cumberland although any conclusion based on structural evidence must be considered more tentative at this time.

Data derived from specific artifacts recovered from the Pier C site indicates the presence of a Union warship with a date of sinking after 1856; the assemblage as a whole suggests usage and deposition in the 1850os or 1860oe. Artifacts retrieved from the Horns Brother’s site provide evidence of a similar time frame. Several armament-related items are generally associated more often with the Confederate rather than the Union service and one object in the assemblage originates from the Florida’s only European port-of-call.

In conclusion, we feel that we have uncovered persuasive evidence indicating that the Pier C and Horns Brother’s sites represent the remains, respectively, of the U.S.S. Cumberland and the C.S.S. Florida. Positive identification, however, will require a more extensive investigation of both wrecks. Plans for the excavation of a aeries of teat trenches, to be conducted by UAJV under NUMA’s auspices in 1983 and 1984, are currently being formulated.


Besse, S.S. C.S. Ironclad Virginia, Mariner’s Museum Publication No. 4, Newport News, Va. 1937.

Blakeman, Noel A., ed. Personal Recollections of the War of the Rebellion, 2nd series, New York and London, 1837.

Bradley, Chester D. “Four Important Historical Questions for Newport News and the Answers to Them.” Unpublished, 1979.

Godden, Geoffrey A. Encyclopedia of British Pottera and Porcelain Marks, New York, 1964.

Johnson, Robert U. and C.C. Buel, eds. Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Vol. 1, New York, 1884-87.

Jones, Virgil C. The Civil War at Sea: January 1861-March 1862, Vol. 1, New York, 1960.

Lord, Francis A. Civil War Collector’s Encyclopedia, Secaucus, New Jersey, 1965.

Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies, Series I, Vol. III, Washington, D.C., 1894-1922.

Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies, Series I, Vol. III, Washington, D.C., 1894-1922.

Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies, Series I, Vol. III, Washington, D.C., 1894-1922.

Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies, Series I, Vol. III, Washington, D.C., 1894-1922.

Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies, Series I, Vol. III, Washington, D.C., 1894-1922.

Owsley, Frank L., Jr. The C.S.S. Florida: Her Building and Operations, Philadelphia, 1965.

Ripley, Warren. Artillery and Ammunition of the Civil War, New York, 1970.

U.S. Army Ordnance Manual, Philadelphia, 1862.

West, George B. When the Yankees Came: Civil War and Reconstruction on the Virginia Peninsula, Parke Rouse, Jr., Ed., Richmond, 1977.

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