Galveston Commemorates 150th Anniversary of USS Hatteras Sinking With New Wreck Images

In just 13 minutes, the USS Hatteras, a 210-ft. Union sidewheel steamship, went to the bottom after losing her final Civil War battle with the mightier Confederate raider CSS Alabama.

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Published Jan 11, 2013 4:27 PM by Katy A. Smith

In April 1861, President Abraham Lincoln enacted a naval blockade boldly proposed by General Winfield Scott. Scott’s “Anaconda Plan” would seal off over 3,500 miles of coastline and 12 major Confederate ports along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, and that meant the Union Navy had to quickly grow its arsenal of ships in order to put a strangle-hold on the Southern economy. In September of that year, Hatteras was converted to a gunboat and fitted with iron-plating. She fiercely and successfully waged war alongside her Union compatriots until January 11, 1863, when she met Alabama in an uneven battle off the blockaded Texas port of Galveston.

Shifting Sands

Recent shifting sediments from the storm-ravaged Texas coast have uncovered new, tantalizing views of the wreck, and researchers lost no time mustering an archaeological 3-D mapping mission to the site last September. Hatteras, the only Union vessel sunk in the Gulf of Mexico during the War Between the States, remains 60 percent intact. She is also a war grave. Originally discovered in the 1970s, she rests in 57 feet of water and is now giving up more of her secrets, which unfortunately also means she is at the mercy of looters.

The scientific expedition, headed by Chief Scientist James P. Delgado, Director of Maritime Heritage, National Marine Sanctuaries, was made up of over 30 archaeologists, divers, technicians, students, and volunteers from NOAA and various organizations. It conducted 35 mapping and visual reconnaissance dives in just two days. Divers helped deploy and manipulate the cutting-edge, high-definition sonar equipment furnished by Teledyne BlueView, a company that provides compact acoustic imaging and measurement solutions for several industries. This was the first time its multi-beam sonar known as “BlueView,” which takes pictures with sound, was deployed to help document a shipwreck.

Several underwater photographs were also taken of the divers at work by Jesse Cancelmo, noted underwater photographer and dive master. Even though more than half the wreck is still submerged, startlingly clear pictures of the paddlewheel hubs as well as thrust bearings on the paddlewheel shaft have been captured in 3-D. The shaft is bent, which may be due to damage or settling of the ends prior to its burial, and the machinery in the center of the engine room is visible, though shrouded by fishing nets.

Also visible on the paddlewheel shaft is an “eccentric,” an offset strap and sheave arrangement that transferred reciprocating motion into circular motion. The stern is also more exposed, revealing the stern frames and armor-plating, the first time the wreck’s armor has been documented. The lower half of the port side paddlewheel has survived, and researchers believe some new features could be mounts for two (of four) pivoting 32-pdr., 6,384 lb. guns, likely salvaged following the battle. Delgado reported that “We can see the engine room, a place of heroism and of death.”

New information on the wreck, still owned by the U.S. Navy and managed by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, will amend its 1973 listing in the National Register of Historic Places. The team is also working to propose it be designated as a National Historic Landmark, a status accorded to a handful of other notable wrecks, such as the USS Monitor.

Galveston will host several events to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the sinking of the USS Hatteras, whose story turned exceptional when she became a victim of a conflict in which she was employed against incredible odds. Her final formidable foe was a much faster ship equipped with 10 guns, including 6-inch 32-pdr. guns and a 110 lb. rifled gun.

Honoring the Fallen

At the start of the September mission, a memorial service was performed to honor the two fallen crewmen entombed in the wreck. Genealogists have yet to find any evidence of family ties to Fireman John G. Cleary and Coal Heaver William Healy. “These Irish immigrants fought for a country that accepted them, gave their devotion and paid the ultimate price,” says Delgado.

The two forever-silent crewmen inside the wreckage, like the ship herself, fought until the very last minute. “They stayed and did their job in a steam-filled burning engine room,” says Delgado. “That's incredible bravery.” – MarEx

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.