Archives For Riverine

confederate fort

Fort Fisher
CC Photo Courtesy of NC Culture on Flickr

At the beginning of 1865, General Winfield Scott’s Anaconda Plan was slowly suffocating the Confederacy and only one major port, Wilmington, NC, remained open in defiance of the Yankee invaders. Wilmington’s location made it one of the South’s most successful ports for blockade runners. The city itself lay 30 miles up the Cape Fear River from the Atlantic Ocean and blockade runners had two islets from which to enter the Atlantic and evade the Union blockade fleet.

Early in the war, Confederate forces recognized the importance of securing the mouth of the Cape Fear. By 1865, what had begun life as a small artillery battery had become Fort Fisher, one of the largest coastal emplacements of the 19th century, and had been dubbed the Gibraltar of the South. Fort Fisher was shaped in the form of an L with a northern land face and a westward facing sea face.

In addition to its fearsome batteries of heavy guns, the fort’s commander, Colonel William Lamb, created a roving artillery unit equipped with advanced breech-loading Whitworth cannon. Colonel Lamb utilized the squadron to drive off Union warships that sought to attack blockade runners steaming through the surf zone or beached during an unsuccessful run.

On December 24, 1864 the Union Army and Navy attempted a combined operations attack on the fort, but were driven off thanks to the effective command of Colonel Lamb and the incompetence of the Union ground commander, Major General Benjamin “Spoons” Butler. Less than a month later, on January 12, 1865 a larger, better equipped Union force arrived off Fort Fisher determined to carry the fort regardless of the cost. On January 15, after a 60 hour bombardment, 8,000 Union troops surged forward and captured the fort after a fierce 6 hour battle. Fort Fisher’s capture sealed the fate of Wilmington and ensured that no more foreign war material would reach General Robert E. Lee’s beleaguered troops in Petersburg, Virginia.

Today the sea has claimed much of the fort and what little remains is a museum and historic site run by the state of North Carolina. Visitors to the museum should be sure to stop in at the world-class Fort Fisher Aquarium just down the road.

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US Navy Seals

Photo: US Department of Defense

While today the US Navy’s Sea, Air and Land (SEAL) units have become household names for taking down Osama Bin Laden and Somali pirates, there was a time when their exploits were much more in keeping with their reputation as Silent Professionals. In 1989, during the invasion of Panama (Operation Just Cause), a team of SEALs played a quiet, but integral role to the success of the invasion.

Although Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega had been a US ally in the early 1980s, his relations with the US took a chilly turn in the late 1980s. Fueled by disputes over the Panama Canal Zone and the War on Drugs, tensions escalated between the US and Panama until December 20, 1989 when President George H.W. Bush ordered that Operation Just Cause be set into motion.

One of the primary objectives of the invasion was to secure Manuel Noriega and bring him back to the United States to stand trial. The SEALs were tasked with preventing Noriega’s escape by capturing, disabling or destroying his private jet and gunboat. A team of four SEALs used a combat rubber raiding craft (CRRC) to approach within swimming range of the gunboat. The team then silently approached the gunboat, but were detected and attacked with grenades. Despite this minor setback, the SEALs successfully planted their explosives and exfiltrated out of the area. The gunboat was destroyed and, even though the plan had originally been to merely sever the propellers with explosives, in the aftermath of the attack one of the gunboat’s engines couldn’t even be located because so much explosives had been used.

Meanwhile a team of three SEAL platoons moved on Noriega’s private, but unfortunately took 12 casualties including 4 KIA in a firefight surrounding the hangar. The jet was destroyed with rocket fire and the SEALs’ objective of sealing off Noriega’s escape routes was accomplished. Operation Just Cause concluded less than 2 weeks later when Noriega, who had holed up in the Vatican Embassy, surrendered to US forces.

City of Medicine Hat

Saskatoon, Saskatchewan
CC Image Courtesy of Space Ritual on Flickr

The Star Phoenix reported earlier last week that more than 1,000 artifacts have been recovered from what is believed to the wreck of the SS City of Medicine Hat. Designed and built by the wealthy and eccentric Scottish nobleman Horatio Hamilton Ross, the ship was intended to operate as an inland steamer in Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan, Canada.The ship sank on her maiden voyage from Medicine Hat, Alberta to Winnipeg, Manitoba on June 7, 1908. City of Medicine Hat’s rudder was rendered inoperable when it snagged an underwater obstacle and the vessel drifted against a bridge abutment where it capsized under the swift river currents of the South Saskatchewan River.

There were no casualties in the sinking and the ship sank into both metaphysical and physical obscurity. This August, though, a crew working to replace a bridge across the South Saskatchewan River recovered more than 1,000 artifacts from approximately 25 feet below the surface. Archaeologists working with the project believe with substantial certainty that the artifacts belong to the City of Medicine Hat. Miscellaneous artifacts such as an anchor were previously recovered in 2006 and 2008, but this is the first comprehensive recovery of items since initial salvage efforts concluded on the vessel in 1908. While the final disposition of the artifacts is still in question, they most certainly will assist historians in painting a more complete picture of turn of the century riverine life in central Canada.

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.