May 8, 2011

In the murky depths of the James River just off Newport News Point is a skeletal shape that looks something like a giant overturned horseshoe crab.

For decades watermen had snagged oyster tongs on a wooden structure and brought up the flotsam and jetsam of an ancient shipwreck. What no one seemed to suspect, until archaeologists confirmed its identity, is that the site bears witness to a deadly encounter that signaled the end of a long era in naval history.< >Sinking of the Cumberland, a line engraving from Leslie’s Weekly. The scene shows the crew still fighting as the ship goes down. Courtesy of U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command.

The Cumberland, a 1,726-ton wooden frigate, was built at the Boston Navy Yard in 1842 and began a long and distinguished career as a flagship in several stations around the globe. The first was in the Mediterranean, then the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico. Among its officers was Commodore Matthew Perry.

In 1855-56, Cumberland was converted to a sloop of war, allowing it to carry fewer but more powerful guns. These changes made the ship what Navy historians described as a “magnificent corvette and fast sailor.” The next two years were spent cruising the coast of Africa chasing down suspected slave ships.

The Cumberland was at the Gosport Navy Yard in Portsmouth in early 1861 when Virginia joined the Confederacy and war broke out. Unlike the Union frigate Merrimack, which was burned and sunk, the Cumberland was towed to safety as the yard was abandoned.

The warship took part in the successful Union assault at Hatteras Inlet later that year and joined the blockading squadron in Hampton Roads, capturing vessels carrying cotton, coal and military stores. Pretty successful for a wooden sailing ship, but its days were numbered.

On March 8, 1862, the Cumberland was at anchor off Newport News when its former sister ship, the Merrimack, now converted to an ironclad and rechristened the Virginia, steamed into Hampton Roads, turned to port and went straight for the Cumberland. Shrugging off furious broadsides, the Virginia ran full speed at the Cumberland and buried its iron ram into the wooden ship’s starboard side.

As the Virginia backed away, leaving the ram buried in the Cumberland, gunners decimated the wooden ship, leaving its decks awash in blood and gore. Even so, the wounded ship’s crew continued futilely firing on the iron adversary until its guns were under water.

“We delivered a parting fire, each man trying to save himself by jumping overboard,” Lt. George Morris, the acting commander, reported. But there were many wounded who could not be saved and were among 121 sailors who perished in the battle. One admiring opponent left a fitting epitaph:

“No ship was ever fought more gallantly.”

The Cumberland’s fate was to be the first victim of a new era of naval warfare, a clear demonstration of the superiority of steam-powered ironclad ships. That night the Union’s own ironclad, the Monitor, arrived and the following day engaged the Virginia in a four-hour slugfest that ended in a draw.

Before the battle, the Monitor’s crew saw what must have been a chilling memorial of the Cumberland, three masts, a tattered pennant still dangling from one of them, marking where the ship had gone down.

Almost immediately, Union salvage crews removed the ship’s guns and other valuable items. Other salvage efforts continued for several years until its location was all but forgotten until 1981 when divers rediscovered it.

Nearby were the remains of the notorious Confederate raider Florida, which spent two years wreaking havoc on Union merchant shipping. In late 1864 a Union warship seized the Florida at a harbor in Brazil and towed it to Hampton Roads where, mysteriously, it was rammed by a barge and sent to the bottom.

The Hampton Roads Naval Museum at Nauticus has several artifacts from the two ships, as well as sections of iron from both the Monitor and Virginia. Now, collaborating with the Underwater Archaeology Branch of the Naval History and heritage Command, the museum is participating in a cutting-edge survey of the Cumberland and Florida.

Using new technology, the survey will show three-dimensional views of the two wrecks that can be used in classrooms and other educational venues.

To kick off the effort, the museum is planning a program with Navy underwater archaeologist Robert Neyland who discuss the importance of underwater findings. The program, “Underwater Archaeology: A Priceless Legacy,” will be at 6 p.m. on May 19. For more information see www.hrnm.navy.mil.