Crews search for Civil War history

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PostSubject: Crews search for Civil War history   11/26/2009, 10:06 am

Crews search for Civil War history - Galveston County Daily News

TEXAS CITY — For years, the scoured remains of a Civil War naval tragedy slowly rusted beneath the spinning propellers of gargantuan tankers and sky-scraping container ships.

The scuttled USS Westfield, a Union gunship, and the last vestiges of its 14 doomed crew lay obscured in seafloor sediment near the confluence of the Texas City and Houston ship channels.

On Wednesday, however, divers and salvage crews visited the all-but-forgotten site to begin recovering what is left of the ship in preparation for a planned 5-foot deepening of the Texas City Channel.

Since the dredging will damage or destroy the archeological site, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Galveston District and Navy salvage experts stepped in to remove artifacts from the site, as required by federal law, Sharon Tirpak, Corps project manager for the Texas City Channel, said.

The Westfield sank in an ill-fated attempt by Union sailors to destroy the ship so Confederate sailors wouldn’t capture it, she said.

It was New Year’s Day, 1863, and Union soldiers occupied Galveston. As Confederate steamers launched an attack to regain the island, the USS Westfield, the Union’s flagship of the West Gulf Blockading Squadron, ran aground on a sandbar north of Pelican Island.

The Westfield had been built two years prior as a ferry but was converted by the Navy into a gunboat. Before serving in Texas, the ship was part of the capture of New Orleans and the bombardment of Vicksburg.

During the battle, the Westfield remained grounded until the Union fleet began a hasty retreat. The ship’s captain, William Renshaw, ordered the heavily armed ship destroyed.

He poured turpentine over the deck and laid a fuse trail of powder from the magazine. But when Renshaw lit the fuse, the boat exploded prematurely. The explosion, which was said to have separated the stern from the ship, killed Renshaw and 13 of his crew.

Confederate soldiers salvaged many of the machine elements, six cannons, ordnance and thousands of pounds of iron and brass.

At the time, the area north of Pelican Island was only about 7 feet deep, but, after the construction of the Texas City Dike many years later, the depth grew to about 47 feet, said Bob Neyland, head of the underwater archaeology branch of the Naval History and Heritage Command, based at Washington Naval Yard in the District of Columbia.

Divers now have to be used to retrieve the remains of the 146-year-old ship.

Eight or nine large artifacts, including a 9-inch Dahlgren cannon, are expected to be removed in the first two weeks of the 10-month project, Tirpak said.

The rest of the artifacts will be scooped up in a clam-dredger in a grid-like manner so archeologists can track where pieces came from, she said. The dredged material will be taken to Freeport to be sifted out on shore, then transported to Texas A&M in College Station for conservation, Tirpak said.

Though there were 14 casualties from the explosion on the Westfield, Neyland said it is unlikely any human remains would have held up to time and tide.

What is more likely, is the recovery of unexploded cannon balls and grapeshot, Tirpak said.

For that contingency, explosives experts from the Navy and Marine Corps are on hand to disarm the once explosive devices.

Workers arrived earlier this week, rafting together three barges and a crew boat near the center of the Westfield’s half-acre debris field. On the barges, cranes nodded with the channel’s swells.

Crewmen wearing orange safety vests peered over the sides, watching a long umbilical line that fed air to a diver on the seafloor.

The crew, which varies from about 30 to 50 members, benefitted from calm water and ideal weather Wednesday, unlike days before, when high wind and swells delayed the project’s start date by two days, Tirpak said.

Meanwhile, ships the size of stadiums passed close enough to smell their diesel fuel exhaust.

Tirpak said divers working underwater can feel the draw of the passing ships as they displace tons of water.

The Coast Guard is helping to slow traffic by limiting passage into the Texas City Channel, she said.

After crews complete their work and the artifacts have been sent through the Conservation Research Laboratory at Texas A&M, the Navy will determine how to circulate the artifacts to reputable museums, Neyland said.
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