NOAA and Navy to conduct archaeological survey of two Civil War shipwrecks in Hampton Roads, Va.

June 27, 2011

NOAA and the U.S. Navy embarked today on a two-day research expedition to survey the condition of two sunken Civil War vessels that have rested on the seafloor of the James River in Hampton Roads, Va., for nearly 150 years.

Using state-of-the-art sonar technology to acquire data, researchers will create three-dimensional maps of the two shipwrecks, USS Cumberland and CSS Florida, to  analysis on their current conditions and better understand the technological innovations of the time.

“The remains of the USS Cumberland and CSS Florida, preserved in the waters of Hampton Roads, remind us of the sacrifices made during the Civil War and give us a unique and rare opportunity to explore a pivotal chapter in our nation’s history,” said David Alberg, superintendent of NOAA’s Monitor National Marine Sanctuary. “NOAA is pleased to be part of a project that increases understanding of America’s maritime heritage.”

USS Cumberland was lost on March 8, 1862, during the Battle of Hampton Roads, where she served in the U.S. Navy’s North Atlantic Blockading Squadron. She sank after being rammed by the Confederate ironclad CSS Virginia (formerly USS Merrimack) and went down with more than 121 men.

CSS Florida was a Confederate commerce raider which had been captured by the U.S. Navy in Brazil. Towed to United States as a prize despite Brazil's protests, it was lost on Nov. 19, 1864, following a collision with a U.S. Navy troop ferry.

Both vessels are protected by federal law under the Sunken Military Craft Act of 2005, the Abandoned Shipwreck Act of 1987, and the Territorial Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which gives the U.S. government exclusive rights to its own property.

“We are extremely excited about this project,” said Alexis Catsambis, underwater archaeologist and cultural resource manager of the U.S. Navy’s Naval History & Heritage Command (NHHC). “The information collected during this project will really increase our understanding of the condition of these wrecks.”

The last survey of the USS Cumberland took place in 2007. The survey also included documentation of the CSS Florida.

In addition to archaeological and historic significance, this project will also develop education and outreach materials to expand public awareness of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, with sesquicentennial commemoration events throughout 2011.

“The more we learn about our cultural resources, the more we discover about our nation’s history and the people who shaped it,” said Rear Admiral Jay DeLoach, NHHC director. “The survey work on the USS Cumberland and the CSS Florida will not only improve our understanding of the vessels themselves, but it will help us gather information on the Civil War and the technological innovations of the time and allow us to bring those stories to the public in a way we have not been able to in the past.”

The project will take place aboard a NOAA research vessel from the nearby USS Monitor National Marine Sanctuary, which was designated to protect the cultural heritage of its namesake, another shipwreck lost in the Civil War.

Artifacts from the USS Cumberland and CSS Florida, including gun and cannon parts, glassware, and a belt buckle are on permanent exhibit at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum in Norfolk, Va. 

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