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Archaeologists excavating blockade runner


PORT BOLIVAR, Texas - Buried in the sand not far off the Texas coast from the Bolivar lighthouse, the Denbigh, a Civil War blockade runner, is slowly revealing its secrets.

With a team led by Texas A&M; nautical archaeologist Barto Arnold, graduate students from across the country are helping salvage pieces of the side-wheel steamer that served as a lifeline to the Confederacy.

The Denbigh earned fame for outrunning the U.S. Navy's blockades 13 times during the Civil War, first in Mobile, Ala., and later in Galveston, Texas.

But for all its lore, the speedy British merchant ship met its end in a very mundane fashion May 24, 1865.

The ship's demise in the Gulf of Mexico came more than a month after Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse, Va., and a little more than a week before the surrender of Galveston. The culprit was a sandbar that ensnared the Denbigh in the middle of the night.

It wasn't the first time the Denbigh had run aground, but this time the crew couldn't break free.

At dawn, U.S. Navy ships spotted the stranded vessel and opened fire. As Union gunboats closed in, the Denbigh's crew abandoned ship.

The boarding party raided the liquor cabinets and set fire to the 182-foot ship. One member of the boarding party died when his gun accidentally discharged.

Whereabouts forgotten

Though the vessel's demise was noted in history books, its whereabouts were largely forgotten until Arnold found an 1880 Corps of Engineers map pinpointing the Denbigh's location.

Using the map, Arnold located the Denbigh buried in sand near a jetty in December 1997.

To the 52-year-old Arnold, the Denbigh isn't just about the Civil War. The ship also provides a window into two eras of shipbuilding.

The iron-hulled ship is a bridge between the wooden ships that were made for centuries and iron ships that would become commonplace in the 20th century.

The ship's feathering mechanism, which enabled the side- wheels to turn more efficiently, illustrates its uniqueness.

"One end of it shows the traditional wooden ship technology," Arnold said. "The other end of that hub has the best and latest paddle-wheel design that allowed the Denbigh to move so fast for its time. It's all combined in one artifact that's the size of a kitchen table."

Fast for its times

At its time trials in 1860, the Denbigh recorded what was then the third-fastest time ever at 15.75 mph.

"It was like the Ferrari of its day," Arnold said.

Arnold's team of divers also recovered more everyday items from the ship. They have found unmarked liquor bottles, still intact, that Arnold believes contain rum, and silverware used by the ship's crew.

The Denbigh's crew of 20 wasn't willing to tangle with the U.S. Navy simply to support the Confederacy.

On the return leg, embargoed cotton would be hauled back to Havana, Cuba, for massive profits.

"With one successful round trip, you could buy an entire ship outright, buy the outbound cargo, pay the crew very handsome wages and still make a very nice profit," Arnold said.

The Denbigh could sail from Havana to Galveston in three days. With its speed and low profile in the water, it would usually maneuver around the blockades without much difficulty.

Only at the end of the Civil War, Arnold said, did the blockade gain teeth. Faster ships and a stronger commitment made it more difficult for ships to run the gantlet.

The frustration the Denbigh caused the U.S. Navy is evident in dispatches between Union naval officials.

In a June 10, 1864, letter to Rear Adm. D.G. Farragut, Navy Secretary Gideon Wells expressed frustration over the Denbigh's success in eluding the Union blockade around Mobile.

"Some effort should be made to put a stop to the career of this vessel," Wells wrote. The Denbigh has been "looked for with the same degree of certainty of any steamer regularly running to this port, and so far she has not disappointed expectations."

The ship would later begin runs to Galveston after the U.S. Navy captured all the forts around Mobile Bay in August 1864 and successfully closed the port to Confederate shipping.

Arnold's efforts to learn about the Denbigh captured the interest of one Texas A&M; graduate, who has a personal connection to the ship.

Florida resident John Erskine's great-grandfather, John Horlock, served on the ship as a captain's boy.

In the summers of 1999 and 2000, Erskine and his son, Jeff, went with Arnold to the wreck site and dived around the ship.

'The same planks'

"It was a really interesting experience," Erskine said. "It was kind of like walking the same planks as your great-grandfather. We made a couple of dives. It was pretty murky but it was still fascinating to see."

Erskine didn't know about his great-grandfather's blockade-running exploits until he began researching his family history. Horlock was born in Alabama and later settled in Navasota, Texas, and owned several businesses, including an ice house and a bottling company.

The family home in Navasota has been turned into a museum.

The Denbigh is the latest shipwreck project for Arnold. While working for the state of Texas, he helped recover the Belle, one of French explorer Rene Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle's ships that were lost in Matagorda Bay in 1686.

During the excavation process, a cofferdam was constructed around the wreck, and then water was pumped out of the site.

When that project was completed, Arnold went to Texas A&M;'s Institute of Nautical Archaeology.

The institute, founded by George F. Bass, affiliated with Texas A&M; in 1976. It is considered the premier nautical archaeology school in the nation and has taken part in shipwreck recovery projects around the world.

Among the renowned projects are the excavation of Port Royal, Jamaica, which was flooded in a 1692 earthquake.

The institute has worked on numerous projects in Turkey that date to 1300 B.C. and a wreck that dates to the Golden Age of Classical Greece at Tektas Burnu, Turkey.

Other excavations

Besides the Denbigh, the institute is conducting excavations this year in Egypt, Portugal, the Dominican Republic and Turkey. The institute has a campus in Bodrum, Turkey.

Arnold is the group's Texas history specialist.

His Denbigh project may be coming to an end soon unless more funding is found.

So far, Arnold's team has collected about 250 artifacts from the Denbigh. As state property, most will eventually be displayed or stored at a museum. The Corpus Christi Museum of Science and History is traditionally the repository for all shipwreck artifacts from Texas waters.

But even if the Denbigh project winds down, there are other projects waiting for Arnold, including the excavation of a river steamer along the Red River this fall.

Arnold has also discovered a Republic of Texas ship, the Zavala, buried underneath the docks near two grain elevators in Galveston's port.

The Zavala, which was towed to port in a deteriorating condition, has slowly rotted through the decades but Arnold knows the boiler is still intact.

Someday, as he has done with the Denbigh and the Belle, Arnold vows he will unearth the Zavala's secrets.

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