Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Underwriter rises from the deep

or how the remains of a Union gunboat were retrieved from a watery grave!

By John B. Green III

Detail of J.O. Davidson, Confederates Burning the Gunboat Underwriter, from The American Heritage Century Collection of Civil War Art, 1974.
The U.S.S. Underwriter, Union Navy gunboat, began life as a side-wheel commercial steamer constructed in Brooklyn, New York in 1852.  Purchased by the U.S. Navy, like many other civilian craft in the early days of the Civil War, she was converted to a gunboat for blockade duty in August 1861.  The ship saw extensive action along the coast and in the sound regions of North Carolina, participating in the attack on New Bern, March 14, 1862.  She would be engaged in various duties in and around New Bern through early 1864.

The U.S.S. Underwriter fell victim to a daring Confederate commando raid, part of a larger attempt to retake New Bern from the occupying Union forces.  In the early morning hours of February 2, 1864, the Confederate commandos led by Commander John Taylor Wood approached the ship in longboats and, after a brief fight, overpowered the Underwriter's crew and seized the ship.  The Confederate plan was to get the ship underway and use her guns to assist the larger land assault on New Bern.  It was soon discovered that the ship's boiler fires were banked and that it would take too long to get up steam.  At the same time Union shore batteries had detected the Confederate efforts to make away with the Underwriter and had begun to fire upon the vessel and her southern captors.  Commander Wood ordered the ship to be set afire and, taking his Union prisoners with him, abandoned the vessel.  The fires and eventual explosion of the Underwriter's magazine sent the gunboat to the bottom of the Neuse River.  Much of the vessel was salvaged during and after the war but a large debris field remained along the river's muddy bottom.

In 1986 the debris field was discovered by recreational divers in the Neuse River just off the Maola Milk plant property.  The largest identifiable piece of the Underwriter was a damaged and slightly charred naval gun carriage.  The divers alerted the state underwater archaeologists at Fort Fisher, North Carolina and plans were soon laid to explore the site and retrieve the gun carriage.  After conservation, the gun carriage would become a major addition to the Civil War room of the New Bern Academy Museum.  After recovering hundreds of smaller artifacts from the site, the recovery of the gun carriage was set for June 26, 1987.  On that day a large air bag was attached to the gun carriage and inflated, lifting the heavy object from the river bottom.  The air bag with the gun carriage slung beneath it was towed down the Neuse, around Union Point, and up the Trent to Barbour Boat Works.  The shipyard's crane lifted the Underwriter's gun carriage and placed it on a trailer for transport to the conservation facility at Fort Fisher.  After many months of stabilization, the gun carriage was returned to New Bern and placed in the New Bern Academy Museum.

The following photographs of the recovery of the Underwriter gun carriage were taken by the author on June 26, 1987.

The gun carriage, still underwater beneath the air bag, arrives at Barbour Boat Works.

Slings holding the gun carriage are attached to the cable of the shipyard crane.

The gun carriage breaks the water for the first time in 123 years.

The gun carriage is swung away from the water . . .

. . . and carefully lowered onto the waiting trailer.

The gun carriage parked at Tryon Palace before beginning its journey to Fort Fisher.