USS Housatonic

History of the Ship

The Federal sloop-of-war USS Housatonic was built at Boston Navy Yard, Massachusetts in 1861. The 1,240-ton vessel measured 205 feet in length and 38 feet in beam. It carried two main boilers and one auxiliary, all three of which were based on the Martin Tubular Patent. Its steam propulsion system comprised two horizontal 42-inch cylinder direct action engines that combined generated approximately 1,150 horsepower. Captain William Rogers Taylor assumed command of Housatonic shortly after the vessel was commissioned in Boston on August 29, 1862. Housatonic departed Boston on September 11, 1862, arrived in South Carolina waters nine days later, and joined the naval blockade against Charleston. Captain Taylor's crew remained on duty off Charleston and settled into a largely uneventful daily routine. It may have been this day-to-day inactivity that prompted Housatonic's crew to become overly anxious for combat and accidentally fire on the Union blockading ship Ottawa on the night of January 22, 1863.

In early April 1863, Housatonic played a supporting role in Admiral Samuel F. DuPont's attempt to take Fort Sumter using ironclad gunboats. Although the sloop-of-war did not take an active role in the attack, DuPont's battle plan and historic charts illustrating the placement of participating vessels make mention of it. Later that year, on the night of September 8, several boats belonging to Housatonic took part in an amphibious assault against Fort Sumter. The surprise federal attack was compromised and failed miserably, resulting in the imprisonment of over 100 Union sailors and marines, including several from Housatonic. In the month following the thwarted attack on Fort Sumter, little or nothing out of the ordinary happened to the sloop-of-war and its crew. With the exception of discovering a string of floating contact mines, the Federal blockader continued its monotonous duty in the waters off Charleston. However, this routine was shattered when Housatonic became the first vessel in history to fall victim to an enemy submarine.

The Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley silently approached Housatonic on the night of February 17, 1864. By the time crewmen aboard Housatonic determined that H.L. Hunley was not a log, porpoise, or other harmless object, the submarine closed the gap and the Union vessel's heavy guns could not be trained low enough to defend itself. As Housatonic's crew slipped the anchor chain and backed the engine in an attempt to avert the attack, H.L. Hunley rammed an explosive charge into the sloop-of-war's starboard side just aft of the mizzenmast. Within moments, the charge exploded; five minutes later, Housatonic lay completely submerged. As the Union blockader slipped beneath the waves, five of its crewmen perished, either as a result of the blast or by drowning. The remainder of its crew scrambled to the relative safety of the vessel's rigging.

Only three days after sinking, Housatonic became the subject of efforts to salvage its guns and other items of value. These activities continued in earnest until March 1, 1865, when salvos recovered the paymaster's safe. For almost a decade after the Confederate surrender in April 1865, Housatonic remained largely undisturbed. In the summer of 1873, the Army Corps of Engineers initiated efforts to lower Housatonic's wreckage, which had become a navigational hazard to commercial shipping entering and leaving the harbor. For over 30 years, Housatonic lay undisturbed beneath a marker buoy warning passing vessels of the hazard. By the first decade of the twentieth century, commercial maritime traffic increased to such an extent that Charleston officials decided it was time to completely remove Housatonic's remains. In 1909 the Corps of Engineers awarded a salvage contract William Virden. The contract stated that Virden should lower the height of the wreckage, if practical, without removing any portions of it. Virden dynamited the boilers, breaking them into smaller pieces, and announced that the contract had been completed; however, officials that examined the wreckage determined that Virden's work did not meet the required depth. The Corps of Engineers required Virden to repeat the process several times. Eventually, the Corps of Engineers realized that the only way to thoroughly clear the passage would be to remove the broken boiler components littering the seabed. As a result of Virden's work, very little of the Housatonic remained exposed.

The Wreck

Housatonic remained undisturbed for another 90 years until staff from the Underwater Archaeology Branch, the National Park Service’s Submerged Resources Center, the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology, and the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources conducted archaeological fieldwork at the wreck site in June and July 1999. The main objectives included the following: 1) establish the extent and orientation of the wreck; 2) determine where the vessel had been hit by H.L. Hunley's torpedo and how much damage was sustained; 3) gather environmental information about the site; 4) identify the source of a large magnetic anomaly near Housatonic; and 5) recover selected artifacts that could represent Union shipboard material culture.

Fuse from USS HousatonicThe project's first phase employed side-scan sonar and sub-bottom profile surveys of the Housatonic site, as well as a regimen of sediment coring by the United States Geological Survey's Center for Coastal Geology (based in St. Petersburg, Florida). Project archaeologists jet-probed various points throughout the site, excavated and examined three trenches, and determined that the remains of Housatonic lay NNW to SSE. Jet probe contacts indicated that Housatonic's lower hull remained largely intact; the exception is the starboard stern, which probing indicated to be either largely disarticulated or missing altogether. This evidence matches historical accounts that state that H.L. Hunley detonated its torpedo against Housatonic's starboard stern area.

Spikes from USS HousatonicThe Underwater Archaeology Branch identified the large magnetic anomaly lying near Housatonic as a marker buoy that presumably marked the wreck site during the early twentieth century. During the 1999 investigations, the multi-agency team recovered approximately 100 artifacts, including coal, a pistol, artillery fuses, wood fragments, a pencil, leather shoes, copper alloy drift pins, copper sheathing fragments, a sheathing tack, a brass chain, an iron strap, and several iron concretions. All of the aforementioned artifacts are undergoing conservation at the Naval Historical Center’s conservation laboratory.

After conservation, these artifacts will be displayed with the H.L. Hunley and its associated material culture at a museum in Charleston, South Carolina. Other Housatonic artifacts will be exhibited at the Navy Museum in Washington, D.C.

Timeline:

  • May 1995: Archaeologists sponsored by author Clive Cussler successfully locate the remains of the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley. The submarine’s discovery prompts the Naval Historical Center to plan a pre-disturbance remote-sensing survey within an area containing the wreck sites of both H.L. Hunley and USS Housatonic.
  • May - June 1996: Archaeologists affiliated with the NHC’s Underwater Archaeology Branch, the National Park Service’s Submerged Resources Center (NPS-SRC), and the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology (SCIAA) conduct joint field operations to expose, assess, and identify the wreck of H.L. Hunley. Simultaneously, a comprehensive pre-disturbance remote-sensing survey and sediment-coring regimen is conducted at the Housatonic wreck site.
  • June - July 1999: Staff from the Underwater Archaeology Branch, NPS-SRC, SCIAA and the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources excavate and evaluate portions of the Housatonic wreck to identify key features of the vessel, as well as the extent of its wreckage and its orientation. The investigation is conducted in a manner that ensures minimal impact to the vessel remains.

References:

Conlin, David, et al.

2005 USS Housatonic Site Assessment. Submerged Resources Center Professional Report No. 19. National Park Service, Santa Fe, NM.


 
Underwater Archeology



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