Archive for Sunday, July 30, 2000

Civil War blockade runner excavated

July 30, 2000


— On a hot night in May 1865, a ship slipped into Galveston Bay from the Gulf of Mexico. It was loaded with smuggled goods from Cuba -- boots, uniforms, lead, the latest in Paris fashions.

Only a quarter-mile from shore, the Denbigh scraped against a sandbar and stuck. Its mostly British crew escaped on a smaller boat before Union soldiers blockading the Confederate port began to shell and burn the unarmed steamer.

It was a month after Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee had surrendered at Appomattox. The Civil War raged on in Texas, where rebels didn't stop fighting until June.

Earlier this week, researchers and students with the Texas A&M; Institute of Nautical Archaeology dug 6 feet beneath the Gulf of Mexico's floor to pull out parts of the Denbigh's engine -- pieces of history, which they located by studying a map from the 1880s.

Little remains of the cargo, and the primary value of the wreck is what it can show about how ships were built in the 1850s and 1860s.

But the Denbigh is special: It is the only blockade runner ever excavated and is one of the most successful in the nation's history, said project director Barto Arnold.

Blockade runners' owners gambled to make enormous profits during the Civil War by slipping past a tight noose of Northern warships to smuggle goods into the South.

"We are learning about an extinct breed of ship," Arnold said. "This vessel represents the pinnacle of British shipbuilding technology in the mid-19th century. When she was new in 1860, the engineering journals praised her as opening a new age in ship design.

"In 1860 she was the hottest thing around," he said. "She was the Ferrari of ships."

The Denbigh was designed as a tourist boat to take visitors from Liverpool, England, to the Welsh coastal town of Rhyl. The crew may have come partly from the English industrial towns of Manchester and Liverpool, where cotton mills and strong trade relations with the American South made many sympathetic to the Confederacy.

There are no crew lists for the Denbigh, Arnold said. Its captain is unknown.

"It wasn't the kind of thing they kept track of, for obvious reasons," he said. "But they preferred British crew members because they couldn't be put in prison by Union soldiers if they were captured."

British researchers have found documents that show the Denbigh reached 14 knots, or about 16 mph, on her trial run in 1860.

In 1864 and 1865, she made 13 successful round trips between Havana and Mobile, Ala., and Havana and Galveston.

On Monday, divers recovered the engine's 8-foot iron connection rod, which weighs about 1,200 pounds. The rod transferred the power of the engine to the ship's port-side paddlewheel.

The engine parts will be cleaned and treated for preservation at the university's Conservation Research Laboratory.

The A&M; research team will need at least another year to complete its investigation. Its goal, Arnold said, is to recover one of the engines and drive trains, including the paddlewheel, which is 18 feet in diameter.

The team members plan to place reconstructed artifacts in a museum.

On the Net: Research site:

Naval Historical Center:

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