Monday, December 19, 2005


A step forward in the Navy's study of its past

by Joanna Romansic
December 15, 2005

This photo of the USS Cumberland wreckage
was taken by the Naval Historical Center
Underwater Archaeology Branch, Naval Surface
Warfare Center Carderock Division on board
the Survey Vessel Bay Hydrographer. The acoustic
sonar camera, or DIDSON camera, which stands for
dual-frequency identification sonar, revealed
important data about the ship's structure, artifacts
and bottom sediments.

James Schmidt, a contract archaeologist for the underwater archaeology branch of the Naval Historical Center located in Bldg. 57 of the Washington Navy Yard (WNY), has what some might say is an undeniably cool job. He dives into oceans and rivers, sometimes where there's zero visibility, trying to map out things he can't even see. Schmidt's looking for hidden treasure: over 3,000 Navy aircraft and 10,000 Navy ships sitting on the bottom of the world's waterways.

And, as of recently, Schmidt's job just got a lot easier. In October, instead of feeling around the sediment-filled James River, measuring objects like guns and canons with his arm, Schmidt used state-of-the art equipment to map out the wreckage of USS Cumberland, a Civil War-era ship 70 feet underwater, one of the last wooden frigates used in U.S. Naval warfare.

Cumberland's history
Before fighting in the Civil War, the Cumberland sailed along the coast of Africa, working to suppress the slave trade there. On March 8, 1862, the Cumberland, anchored off the coast of Newport News, Va., came under attack. The Union Navy was blockading a large amount of the Confederacy's eastern coastline and had to use all of its ships, even the older, wooden sailboats, to keep the South's Navy at bay. The iron-hulled steam-powered Confederate warship, CSS Virginia, a precursor to today's ships, rammed the Cumberland's starboard side, a blow that would help sink the ship.

"The appearance of the gun deck forward at this time was something never to be forgotten," wrote Adm. Thomas Selfridge, who managed to escape from the Cumberland alive. "The deck was covered with the dead and wounded, slippery with blood, the large galley demolished and its scattered contents added to the general destruction, some guns run in as they had last been fired, many of them bespattered with blood, rammers and sponges broken and powder blacked, lay in every direction."

The battle, which left a third of the Cumberland's crew dead, "showed the world the future of Naval warfare," said Robert Neyland, head of NHC's archaeology branch.

The future of naval warfare was the ironclad ship and the world scrambled to keep up. The day after the Cumberland battle, the Virginia fought the USS Monitor in the more famous battle for Hampton Roads. The South saw the victory against the Cumberland as the start of a trend, that is, until they met with the Union's ironclad, the Monitor. This was the first battle between ironclads and it ended with no real winner, but Europe and America began mass-producing ironclads after that, with production continuing strong until World War II.

Sonar image.

The search for USS Cumberland
In 1980, Clive Cussler, a well-known novelist, tried unsuccessfully to locate the USS Cumberland wreckage. In 1981, the two Civil War ships, the Cumberland and USS Florida, were located. During the years after, the ships were more illusive, covered with sediment stirred up by the many boats traveling in the heavy traffic area near United Joint Force Military Command Hampton Roads.

More than a decade later, in 2004, Schmidt was doing a demonstration of some sonar equipment and came across the exposed Cumberland wreckage.

"When we got out there we discovered there was a significant portion of the Cumberland nearby," Schmidt said.

After noticing the Cumberland, Schmidt contacted the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) who make and produce all the charts for navigation and have a responsibility to list wrecks or obstructions that can impede modern ship navigation.

In previous years, the Cumberland and Florida never appeared on NOAA's charts because they were buried in sediment. To survey the Cumberland, Schmidt and his team worked with groups, such as the Hampton Roads Naval Museum, NOAA's Ocean Exploration Program and the National Ocean Service. Schmidt used a new type of sonar called a DIDSON camera, which stands for Dual-frequency Identification Sonar, which is coined as an acoustic camera, he said, because it operates at a very high frequency and produces clear pictures.

"[The camera] provided near photographic-quality images of the ship's structure, artifacts, and bottom sediments. [The] images (captured in near zero bottom visibility conditions) revealed construction details and permitted us to take very precise measurements within a relatively short timeframe," Schmidt wrote in an e-mail describing the survey's data.

"We only really had a couple days on site," said Schmidt. "We probably achieved more in two or three days than what we would have in a couple weeks of diving."

Ramming of the U.S.S. Cumberland by the Merrimac (C.S.S. Virginia).

Cumberland's preservation
When the Virginia came into view, the Cumberland's crew's emotions were captured by survivor Selfridge's writings:

"...As they stood at their guns for the last time, cool, grim, silent and determined Seamen, confident in their discipline, proud of their ship, were a model crew. A crew that has never been excelled and perhaps rarely equalled (sic). It was a crew that knowing no surrender, could they have had a motive power other than sails, would have whipped the [Virginia] by the sheer force of their battery and their determination to conquer."

As valuable as wrecks like the Cumberland are to Virginian and American history, they also prove valuable to looters. In 1989, oyster fishermen looted the Cumberland wreckage. The belt buckles, tobacco pipes and other artifacts stolen from the wreck were eventually returned to the government and are now owned by the Hampton Roads Naval Museum in Norfolk, Va. Unfortunately, because of their rough treatment, they are too fragile for display.

According to Neyland and Schmidt, there is a lot to learn from studying the wrecks, airplanes and war graves--human remains from lives lost at sea--that lie on the bottom of oceans and rivers. From studying and protecting sites like the USS Cumberland's store, weaponry and other attributes, people can view snapshots of what life on ship and land during that time was like, said Neyland, who calls these wrecks "national treasures." Plus, with the popularity of underwater cameras, that part of America's history may be more accessible than ever as technology improves and becomes more widely available.


Keep up the good work, I will be back to check on your new updates. Incredible job! I have a blog/website that
might interest you

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