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ECU researchers dive at Mobile Bay

(Oct. 4, 1993)   —   An underwater survey team from East Carolina University is on its way to Mobile, Ala. to examines ships that sank during the famous Civil War battle of Mobile Bay.
The team, led by archaeologist Gordon P. Watts of ECU, will survey three vessels—the C.S.S. Gaines, the U.S.S. Philippi and the U.S.S. Tecumseh. The most famous of the three, the Tecumseh, was a new single turret monitor that struck a torpedo or mine as the battle began.
The ship sank in 25 seconds killing 93 men. The sinking stunned the Union fleet and momentarily halted its progress. In desperation, Admiral David Farragut climbed to the upper deck of the flagship Hartford, lashed himself to rigging, and was said to have yelled “Damn the torpedoes! Go ahead.”
The team from ECU will document and assess the Tecumseh and the other two shipwreck sites for the U.S. Department of Interior, National Park Service and for the U.S. Navy. A $20,000 grant is funding the project.
An unusual aspect of the study, according to Watts, is the Park Service’s recognition of Mobile Bay as a battlefield. He said the Park Service protects historic battlefields but that protection, until now, has extended to the land battlefield sites.
He said the assessment of the wrecks in Mobile Bay may signal some changes in the way the Park Service’s battlefield protection program. He said the work could lead to protection and management plans for historic nautical battle sites at Mobile Bay, Fort Fisher, N.C. and Yorktown, Va.
The team will be headquartered at Fort Morgan, a park site near the entrance to the bay.
The team from ECU includes students and faculty from the graduate program in Maritime History and Nautical Archaeology. The five student team members and Watts returned last week from Bermuda where they practiced mapping and surveying techniques on a 18th Century British shipwreck. ECU works in Bermuda each fall under the sponsorship of the Bermuda Maritime Museum.
Watts is one of North Carolina most experienced underwater archaeologists. He was among the team that discovered the U.S.S. Monitor off the coast of North Carolina in the early 1970’s.
This summer he went abroad to study another vessel involved in the War Between the States. He worked with an international research team in France to help excavate the C.S.S. Alabama. The famous Confederate raider sank in the English Channel in 1864 after a long and heated battle with the U.S.S. Kearsarge. The wreck site is near Cherbourg, France.
Watts said the archaeology team recovered a number of artifacts from the wreck including much of the ship’s china. He said National Geographic Magazine also took photos for an article later this year about the excavation of the vessel.
For the current study in Mobile Bay, Watts said team will survey the famous Tecumseh. Most of its hull is below the bottom, hidden by mud and silt. The divers will record the exposed area and determine the amount of deterioration.
Of the other two vessels, the Gaines was an armor-clad ship, one of only a few used by the Confederacy. Its commander ran the vessel aground near the shore during the battle in order to salvage the guns.
The Philippi was a Union gunboat that was converted from a former Confederate blockade runner called the “Ella.” It was sunk by Confederate artillery.
The five ECU students involved in the project are: Jeff Morris of Columbia, Md., Tim Hastings of Wilson, N.C., Ted Dunlap of Greenville, N.C., Steve Gibbens of Lynchburg, V