Archives For Riverine

ironclad sinking

Lt. Cushing Sinks the CSS Albemarle

Before there were the Navy’s UDT, SEAL or SWCC units, there was Lieutenant William B. Cushing. Only a few days before his 22nd birthday, Cushing led 15 men in a daring raid behind Confederate lines against the ironclad CSS Albemarle. The Albemarle had been built by the Confederate Navy in a cornfield astride the Roanoke River in eastern North Carolina. Shortly after her launch in April 1864, the Albemarle sortied down the Roanoke River in a combined operation with General Robert F. Hoke’s infantry brigade. Hoke’s brigade retook the town of Plymouth, North Carolina while Albemarle sank the USS Southfield and drove the remaining US Navy forces downriver.

The re-capture of Plymouth and the presence of Albemarle on the Roanoke River threatened Union dominance of the North Carolina coast. A successful sally by the ironclad could break the blockade then strangling the economic lifeblood of the dying Confederacy. Desperate to destroy the threat of the Albemarle, Union commanders entertained a unique proposal by young Lt. Cushing. Cushing proposed piloting a small picket boat up the Roanoke River and destroying the Albemarle with a spar torpedo. Spar torpedoes, the forerunners of modern self-propelled torpedoes, were a new innovation consisting of crude explosive devices mounted to a long wooden pole that were detonated either manually or on impact.

On the night of October 27, 1864, Cushing and his men silently steamed up the Roanoke River. Protecting the Albemarle was a barrier of chained logs and several sentries. Cushing maneuvered his boat to strike the Albemarle and opened the throttle to full speed. As the launch struck the log boom and rode up over it, Cushing detonated the spar torpedo and blew a massive hole in the Albemarle’s hull. Two of Cushing’s men perished in the attack, 11 were captured and Cushing and another escaped. The Albemarle settled on the river bottom and, unable to raise her, the Confederates quickly lost control of the Roanoke River and were forced to cede back to the Yankees. The Albemarle was raised by the Union and later sold for scrap in 1867.

Cushing continued his exploits with the capture of 3 blockade runners after the fall of Fort Fisher in January of 1865. The blockade runners, unaware Fort Fisher had fallen, were lured into Cushing’s trap when he continued to operate the fort’s signal lights as if it were still in Confederate hands.

kublai khan

Ha Long Bay
CC Image Courtesy of Aftab Uzzaman on Flickr

Australian news site The Age reports that Australian archaeologists are continuing to assist Vietnamese cultural authorities in the development of their maritime archaeological program. Every month Australian advisers from various universities spend time in Vietnam holding seminars on the tools and best practices techniques necessary for excavation of wrecks located off the Vietnamese coast. Additionally, the advisers are assisting with two specific projects – the porcelain shipwreck found earlier this year off Quang Ngai and the search for Kublai Khan’s 1288 invasion fleet.

Kublai Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan, founded China’s Yuan Dynasty in 1279 and set off on a campaign of expansion. Khan set his sights on northern Vietnam and in 1288 dispatched an army and fleet to subjugate Vietnam’s Dai Viet dynasty. The Yuan fleet arrived off Ha Long Bay with the aim of re-supplying the Yuan army and maneuvered up the Bach Dang River. Unfortunately for Khan’s fleet, the Dai Viet had prepared for such a contingency. The Dai Viet had placed wooden stakes in the riverbed and prepared fire ships to attack Khan’s fleet. As the tide began to ebb, the Dai Viet released their fire ships in the narrow confines of the river. In an attempt to avoid the fire ships, the Yuan fleet fled down the river and holed themselves on the wooden stakes which had been exposed by low tide.

The destruction of the Yuan fleet effectively ended Khan’s designs on Vietnam and preserved the Dai Viet dynasty. Archaeologists have located some of the wooden stakes and ships from the battle and efforts are underway to excavate and preserve artifacts from Khan’s fleet.

St. Louis Riverboat

Belle of the Night
Photo: Polestar Boating Center

Three days from now, on October 20th, the Belle of the Night, a former floating restaurant will be auctioned off to the highest bidder at Polestar Boating Center in St. Charles, Missouri. The Belle of the Night operated as a restaurant and night club in Havana, Missouri until being laid up. Prior to that, she was named Belle Angeline and was moored along St. Louis’ Laclede’s Landing as a floating restaurant during the late 1970s and 1980s. The vessel was built in 1975 and is a barge with a 4 story superstructure and not an actual riverboat. The current owner has attempted to work with groups to re-open the Belle of the Night in Grafton, Illinois or St. Charles, but neither have come to fruition. If the vessel is not sold at auction, then its fixtures will be auctioned off on October 24th and the vessel sent to the scrapyard.

The plight of the Belle of the Night is not unusual as the St. Louis riverfront has lost many of its former riverboat attractions in the past few years. The riverboat Robert E. Lee was lost to a fire in 2010 and the Admiral Casino was sent to the scrapyard in 2011. The St. Louis riverfront used to be home to nearly a dozen floating restaurants, excursion boats and even a World War II minesweeper, but changing demands and the forced retirement of many vessels due to age has caused the number of vessels to dwindle to a mere handful.

st. louis low water ship

Wreck of USS Inaugural
Photo: Dillon Fulcher

Low water levels on the Mississippi have revealed the wreck of the USS Inaugural, a World War II minesweeper which sank in the Great Flood of 1993. The Inaugural began life in Washington state where it was built for the US Navy during World War II. A member of the Admirable class of minesweepers, the ship was commissioned in December of 1944 and earned two battle stars for its service in the Pacific Theater. Inaugural and her crew fought in the Okinawa campaign and swept more than 80 Japanese mines from the Pacific.

Following World War 2, the ship was mothballed in Texas as a member of the Atlantic Reserve Fleet until an enterprising St. Louisan named Robert O’Brien discovered the ship in a military surplus catalog. O’Brien purchased the ship and moved it to St. Louis where he charged $1 per person to tour the Inaugural. The Inaugural changed hands several times throughout the intervening years until she was ripped from her moorings during the Great Flood of 1993. Efforts by the US Coast Guard and other vessels allowed the ship to be safely beached just south of downtown St. Louis, however, the ship sank a few days later in what some believe to be mysterious circumstances – possibly flowing out of the owner’s desire to collect insurance on the vessel and pay off looming creditors.

The ship now breaks the surface every time the river level is below average and under current conditions is almost completely above water. The Inaugural is not the only recent maritime oddity on the St. Louis riverfront as a cement barge sank while at anchor just last year and a fire claimed the steamboat Robert E. Lee in 2010.

Go here for more pictures of the wreck.

polish palace

Kazimierz Palace
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Polish archaeologists and police are exploiting historically low water levels on the Vistula River to recover dozens of marble and alabaster decorative elements looted from Polish landmarks in the 17th century. Utilizing a Mil Mi-8 police helicopter, archaeologists are carefully lifting the sculptures from the riverbed and transporting them to drier locales for conservation and restoration. The decorative elements were looted from Poland’s Royal Castle and the Kazimierz Palace by Swedish forces after they captured Warsaw during the mid-17th century. The loot was loaded onto barges and prepared for transit to Sweden via the Vistula and then the Baltic. At least one barge, though, sank en route and scattered its precious cargo along the riverbed. Polish archaeologists have known about the treasures, but river conditions have rarely cooperated such that they could retrieve the pieces. Efforts over the last 3 years have yielded some results, but nothing like the finds archaeologists are making now.

Today, Sweden is most often associated with IKEA furniture, safe cars (cb radio optional), cars born from jets and ABBA, but the Swedish Empire once encompassed 1.1 million square kilometers and dominated its northern European rivals. By comparison, the Holy Roman Empire was 1 million sq. km. and modern Sweden is 450,000 sq. km. The Empire was founded in 1611 by Gustavus Adolphus, a brilliant military commander, who defeated his rivals in the Thirty Years War and began the expansion of Sweden’s borders. Between 1600 and 1721, the Poles and the Swedes clashed no fewer than 6 times in conflicts lasting up to 11 years. It was during one of these wars that the decorative structures being recovered today were looted from Poland’s Royal Castle and the Kazimierz Palace. In addition to waging war against the Poles, the Swedes also attacked and occupied territory in modern day Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, and Russia. The Great Northern War which concluded in 1721 marked the end of Sweden’s status as a great power and the empire’s territorial breadth began to slowly recede.

civil war navy

Pulitzer Prize winning author James M. McPherson’s latest book, War on the Waters, is a concise naval history of the American Civil War. Most authors and historians focus on the great generals (Lee, Jackson, Grant, Sherman, etc.) or the great battles (Antietam, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Shiloh etc.) and often ignore the vital role the navies played in the conflict both on the rivers of the western Confederacy and the high seas. Entire books have been written on various aspects of the naval war – riverine warfare in the west, blockade running, Confederate merchant raiders, foreign intrigue in Europe and the innovations that made their debut in the conflict. McPherson neatly summarizes each of these topics and arranges them in easily digestible chapters that proceed in chronological order.

McPherson’s organization and writing style allow both the uninitiated reader and the Civil War buff to understand the ebb and flow of the conflict and the various personalities, events and inventions that influenced the war. Perhaps most importantly, McPherson accompanies his chapters with strategic or tactical level maps that enable the reader to understand the events which occur in the chapter. McPherson understands the unwritten rule that the inclusion of a relevant map is worth multiple pages of text in helping a reader establish an awareness of the events being described. Along with the maps, various etchings and photos accompany each chapter and neither maps nor illustrations are confined to a few pages in the center or the beginning of the book. This allows the reader to visually grasp the crux of each chapter and makes both the maps and the illustrations more relevant to the narrative being told.

Overall, War on the Waters is a fantastic single volume history of the Civil War’s naval history. McPherson hits all of the highlights of the Civil War – CSS Virginia vs. USS Monitor, blockade running, William B. Cushing’s daring raid on the CSS Albemarle, and the first successful attack by a submarine – in only 225 pages. War on the Waters is a welcome addition to the naval literature of the Civil War and will be enjoyed by anyone interested in American history, naval history or the Civil War.


Photo: US Navy

One wouldn’t expect to find a museum ship in Oklahoma, much less an American World War 2 submarine, but the USS Batfish has made its final resting place in Muskogee, Oklahoma just southeast of Tulsa. The Batfish, a Balao class submarine, was commissioned on August 21, 1943 and made 7 war patrols during the course of World War 2. She is officially credited with sinking 6 Japanese ships, however, her ship’s crew claimed 15 ships sunk and such discrepancies are not uncommon. Among those 6 ships were 3 Japanese submarinesgranting Batfish entry into the exclusive fraternity of submarines that have sent other submarines to the bottom. The Batfish and her crew earned a Presidential Unit Citation, 10 Bronze Stars, 4 Silver Stars and a Navy Cross for their actions in World War 2.

Following World War 2, the Batfish served as a training vessel in the Pacific Fleet and was decommissioned in 1969. In 1973, after much political wrangling by various parties, the Batfish made her final voyage up the Arkansas River to Muskogee where she now continues her service, this time as a museum and memorial to the valiant submariners who perished defending liberty and freedom in World War 2. The ship is open to visitors from March to November. 

russian nuclear powered icebreaker

Icebreaker off Antarctica
CC Image Courtesy of Matt Geske on Flickr

Russia recently commissioned the building of the world’s largest nuclear powered icebreaker in an effort to increase traffic in the Northern Sea Route and better compete for resources in the Arctic. Global warming (anthropogenic or not) has made use of the Northern Sea Route a viable possibility in the past few years and the Barents Observer is reporting that a record amount of cargo may transit the route this year. The current record is 820,789 tons of cargo and 749,706 tons have already made their way through the shipping lane in 2012. Russia hopes to increase trade at its northern ports as the Northern Sea Route stays open longer and longer each season and through the artificial extension of the shipping season via use of its yet to be named icebreaker.

The new icebreaker will be 558 feet long and 102 feet wide, making the vessel 46 feet longer and 12 feet wider than any other icebreaker in Russia’s fleet. The ship’s enormous size will enable it to break up thicker sheets of ice than other ships. In addition to being vastly larger than anything currently in the Russian icebreaking fleet, the ship will have on-board ballast tanks allowing it to raise and lower its draft from 28 to 35 feet. Thus the ship will be able to sail up previously inaccessible Siberian rivers. Powering the icebreaker will be dual nuclear reactors producing 60 megawatts of power which make it capable of towing ships displacing up to 70,000 tons through Arctic waters. While the selection of nuclear reactors as a power source for civilian ships may seem strange, Russia’s first nuclear powered icebreaker, Lenin, first sailed in 1959 and the country currently operates around a dozen nuclear powered icebreakers. As a sidenote, the US experimented with nuclear powered civilian vessels beginning with the launch of the NS Savannah in 1959, but ceased operating her in 1972 due to cost inefficiencies.

While the icebreaker is chiefly intended for improving the commercial flow of goods in the Arctic, the ship’s strategic value can not be ignored. Russia, Norway, Denmark, Canada and the US have all laid claim to parts of the region in order to secure access to the oil and gas believed to be located beneath the seabed. Just as China views its deep water oil rigs as “strategic weapons,” Russia’s possession of the most capable icebreaker in the world will have serious implications in who exercises control of the region.

“When I was a boy, there was but one permanent ambition among my comrades in our village on the west bank of the Mississippi River. That was, to be a steamboatman.”

Chapter 4, Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain

Mark Twain mined his rich experiences as a riverboat pilot to craft some of America’s finest novels. Recently, drought in the US Midwest has helped bring to the surface a piece of Twain’s beloved riverboat culture. In 1884 the Missouri River claimed yet another victim in the form of the 283 foot steamboat Montana, the largest stern-wheel steamboat to ever ply the Missouri’s waters.  Low water levels, though, have exposed a ~180 foot section of the boat’s hull.

Professors and students from East Carolina University’s Maritime Archaeology program previously conducted extensive excavations on the site and published their findings in The Steamboat Montana and the Opening of the American West.