USS Cumberland (1842) - Salvage


Cumberland became an archaeological site the moment she sank to a watery grave, in that the federal government almost immediately solicited work from salvage companies to secure valuable items from the shipwreck.

In his memoir, "When the Yankees Came", Virginia resident George Benjamin West described some post-war work on Cumberland: "After the war ... I have very often been on the boats that worked on the Cumberland, first by a German named West and then by a company of Detroit, Michigan, which purchased her from West and which brought down a great many of the Lakes divers to try to secure the $40,000 in gold said to be in an iron chest in the paymaster's stateroom. ... ... His plan, as told to me, was to start under the stern, which lay down the river, and blow a hole in her and work towards the paymaster's stateroom. He did the diving himself and did not attempt to get any wreckage save the pieces he blew out of the side and brought up on deck, and the copper bolts cut out. The difficulty he had was the foiling-in of mud and sand, and having to grope in the utter darkness. It was very dangerous, and several times he was brought up unconscious."

Occasional salvage of the shipwrecks continued into the early 20th century. In 1909, part of Cumberland's anchor chain was recovered and sent to the museum of the Confederacy in Richmond (Newport News Daily Press, 12 November 1909).

In 1981, the National Underwater and Marine Agency (NUMA) contracted with Underwater Archaeological Joint Ventures (UAJV), a private firm based in Yorktown, VA. UAJV team members consulted local watermen (whose oyster dredges had picked up artifacts for years) to help locate the ships. This information and a remote sensing survey, led archaeologists to two significant wrecks. The recovery of numerous artifacts confirmed that these shipwrecks were most likely Cumberland and CSS Florida. Artifacts recovered included fasteners, fittings, apothecary vessels, a ship's bell (from Cumberland), canon fuses and other ordnance items. The artifacts proved the NUMA/UAJV team had indeed found Cumberland and Florida. Most of the artifacts from this NUMA/UAJV excavation are on exhibit at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum in Norfolk, VA (Newport News Daily Press, 8 March 1987).

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