Saturday, June 25, 2005


East Carolina team locates sunken Union ship in Roanoke River


The Sun News
By Jerry Allegooda
June 23, 2005

JAMESVILLE, N.C. - Lacking the fame of the iron-plated USS Monitor or the Confederate gunboat Albemarle, sunken remains of the Union warship Otsego became little more than a snag in the Roanoke River after the Civil War.

Largely overlooked by local residents, the wreck might be mired in obscurity if not for researchers at East Carolina University. Students and faculty in ECU's Program in Maritime Studies recently confirmed the wreck's location in the Roanoke near Jamesville, about 110 miles east of Raleigh, and mapped it for study.

Larry E. Babits, director of ECU's maritime program, said the Otsego was one of 22 Union warships built to operate in Southern waterways with shallow water and narrow channels. Part of a Union fleet trying to sever Southern supply lines up the Roanoke, it hit a Confederate mine and sank in December 1864.

A jumble of wooden beams and iron, battered by war and more than a century underwater, is all that's left of the 220-foot vessel. But Babits said the wreck was important because the other Otsego-style ships have been lost.
"We can look at it as a sole survivor of its class," Babits said.

During a monthlong research project that ended Friday, divers scoured a six-mile stretch of river near Jamesville with sonar equipment and powerful metal detectors to pinpoint possible shipwrecks. They also identified the remains of the Bazely, a Union tugboat destroyed by a mine when it tried to assist the Otsego.

The muddy Roanoke, which winds through northeastern North Carolina and empties into Albemarle Sound, was a major battleground during the Civil War. With its powerful Navy, the Union gained control of most North Carolina coastal waterways. But the South stubbornly defended the Roanoke, especially the upriver portion with a key railroad bridge at Weldon.

The rail line was a vital supply route from the port at Wilmington to Gen. Robert E. Lee's forces in northern Virginia. Historians suggest the war could have ended within months, rather than four years, if the Union had taken out the bridge and cut the line.

Confederates also used the protected upstream territory to build the CSS Albemarle, a hulking gunboat that bedeviled the Union fleet. Built by a 19-year-old Elizabeth City man in a cornfield, the 158-foot vessel sank two Union ships in an encounter in April 1864. In a showdown with seven Union ships, it survived 557 hits from 60 guns.

The Albemarle succumbed in October 1864 after a daring commando raid. While it was moored in Plymouth, a group led by a young Navy officer slipped upriver in a small vessel and rammed the ship with explosives that sank it at the dock. The commando leader swam to shore, stole a skiff and paddled back to a Union ship in Albemarle Sound.
With the Albemarle out of the way, the Union recaptured Plymouth from Rebel forces and moved up the river.

That's what the Otsego was trying to do. Commissioned in the spring of 1864, the wooden sidewheel ship had an ingenious "double ender" design that enabled it to easily move forward and backward.

Its service ended Dec. 9, 1864, when it sailed into a nest of 20 Confederate mines. One blast blew a hole in the bottom, and a second sank it to the upper deck. But troops remained aboard so it could serve as a guard boat. When the tugboat Bazely later approached the Otsego, the Bazely hit a mine that blew that 70- to 80-foot boat six feet out of the water.
Union forces removed guns from the Otsego and fired on it to destroy machinery.

Unlike the Albemarle, which was later salvaged and scrapped, the Otsego was left where it sank. While dredging the river channel in the 1930s, the Army Corps of Engineers pulled the remains into a 75-foot hole a short distance downstream. Although there were historical and military accounts of the Otsego's fate, its current location in the river wasn't pinpointed until the ECU researchers dived on it.

The site became a murky classroom for a dozen ECU students and faculty. In the 20-foot-deep water, visibility ranged from zero to 2.5 feet on a good day. Student divers identified ship sections on the bottom and reported them to others who mapped them on a diagram of the site.

"Guess what I found - the paddle wheel," graduate student Stephanie Allen said after emerging from the river one day last week.

Allen said she actually found a large piece of wood that supported the missing paddle wheel, which had been mounted to the side of the Otsego. All of the artifacts stayed on the bottom, at least for the time being.

Babits said artifacts were not retrieved because a permit with the Navy only allowed the survey work. In addition, he said, any wooden or iron artifacts brought to the surface would have to go through a long conservation process to keep them from deteriorating into a pile of dust and rust.

Area history buffs welcome the research as a way of bolstering the region's maritime heritage. Willie Drye of Plymouth, a researcher with the Roanoke River Lighthouse and Maritime Museum, said local residents hope artifacts can one day be retrieved and put on display.

But he said having archaeologists catalog the site adds to the region's rich maritime heritage.

"It just puts more of our history out there for our people to see and for visitors to see," Drye said.


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