A Brief History
On August 8, 2000, the remains of Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley were raised to the surface 136 years after this pioneering vessel was sunk, probably by itself during the US Civil War. The Hunley joins the roster of famous or infamous vessels that have been discovered on the sea floor and either raised or with major parts of the vessel recovered. Today we list 10 of the most famous or interesting such shipwrecks (though 5 of them are from one incident!).
1. HL Hunley, Confederate Submarine, sunk 1864, recovered 2000.
We have previously discussed the Hunley in “10 “Oops!” Moments in Naval History” and the fact that this first ever combat effective submarine had accidentally sunk itself twice before it became the first submarine in naval history to sink another ship, the USS Housatonic, in 1864. Using a large explosive charge at the end of a 22 foot long pole driven against the hull of the unsuspecting Housatonic blew a big hole in that ship, sinking the US Navy ship and creating panic among the Union vessels blockading the Charleston, South Carolina harbor. Sadly for the crew of the Hunley, all 8 men aboard the sub died as the Hunley was destroyed by the blast that sunk the Housatonic. Although the wreck of the Housatonic was located easily, the wreck of the Hunley remained elusive for over a century, as searchers never thought to look on the seaward side of the wreck of the Housatonic, assuming the Hunley had to be on the landward side since that is the direction the attack had come from. Exact credit for and date of the discovery of the Hunley is disputed, but in any case, in 2000 large parts of the old submarine were brought to the surface. The partly reconstructed sub can be visited and viewed at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in North Charleston, South Carolina. (Note: The crew may have been killed by the explosion itself rather than from drowning due to leaks caused by the explosion.)
2. USS Monitor, Ironclad warship, sunk 1862, recovered 1973-present.
The 1860’s were a time of important naval advancements, with the proliferation of steam powered warships and breech loading cannons combined with the armor plating of exposed areas of some ships. While not the first steam powered ironclad warships, the USS Monitor and CSS Virginia (former USS Merrimac) had fought an epic and historic battle at Hampton Roads in 1862, the first documented battle of ironclad (armored) warships. Neither the Monitor or the Virginia survived the year 1862, the Virginia scuttled and blown up by her crew to prevent her capture, and the Monitor sunk in heavy weather while being towed past Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. Unfortunately, 16 of her crew of 62 were lost in the sinking. The possible wreck of the Monitor may have been located as early as 1949, though sea currents prevented divers from examining the site. Discovered for real in 1973, the massive single turret was raised, and over the following years much of the rest of the wreck has been raised as well. The recovered portions of the Monitor are on display at the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia.
3-7. 5 US Battleships sunk at Pearl Harbor, 1941, recovered and refloated 1942.
Sadly, the other 2 battleships sunk during Pearl Harbor Japanese surprise attack of December 7, 1941, the USS Oklahoma and USS Arizona, were damaged beyond repair and could not be repaired and returned to service, although the Oklahoma was refloated, she was too damaged to repair. On the other hand, despite the seemingly catastrophic blow to the US Navy’s battleship fleet, 5 of the stricken battleships that fell victim during the Pearl Harbor attack, the USS California, USS Nevada, USS West Virginia, USS Maryland and USS Tennessee, were raised and repaired, and eventually returned to service during World War II. (The USS California had been in dry dock during the attack, and thus was not actually sunk.) The Japanese victory at Pearl Harbor turned out to be far less of a complete smashing of the US Fleet than they had thought, not counting on the resolve and ingenuity of Americans to raise those sunken battleships and return them to action.
8. Maud (aka, Baymaud), stuck in ice, 1926, sunk 1930, raised and refloated 2016.
Famed Arctic/Antarctic explorer Roald Amundsen had the wooden hulled ship he named Maud in honor of the Queen of Norway built for an expedition through the Northwest Passage from 1918 to 1924. (That is how long it took to navigate the Northwest passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific.) The ship was sold to the Hudson Bay Company and renamed the Baymaud, and got stuck in the Arctic ice near Cambridge Bay, Victoria Island in what is now the Province of Nunavut, Canada. Unable to free the ship from the ice, the vessel eventually sank in 1930 and remained on the sea floor until she was raised in 2016 and actually refloated! Placed on a special barge, Maud was painstakingly transported back to Vollen, Norway, arriving in 2018. Presumably the ship will become some sort of museum attraction.
9. Vasa, Swedish ship of war, sunk 1628, raised 1961.
We have written extensively about naval blunders that we call “Oops Moments” (see link “Oops!” Moments in Naval History” above), and the Vasa is surely one of those maritime blunders, having sunk on her maiden voyage less than a mile into her first voyage! Boasting 64 guns, of which 48 were big 24 pounders, the Vasa was one of the most heavily armed ships of her day, though dangerously top heavy due to her heavy armament. Encountering a brisk wind right after setting off, she quickly foundered and sank, remaining on the sea bed until raised (but not refloated) in 1961. Many artifacts have been recovered and a surprisingly large amount of her hull has also been raised and reconstructed on land, where it can be seen at the Vasa Museum in Stockholm, Sweden. The preservation of wood so long under the sea was a daunting task, and the timbers that were Vasa was sprayed with polyethylene glycol for 17 years before being allowed to dry!
10. Roman ship in Rhone River, sunk circa year 1, raised 2011.
In 2001, archaeologists not only found the unlikely remains of 102 foot long Roman barge (that also had a square sail) underneath the mud at the bottom of the Rhone River in France, but by 2011 they also raised much of the ancient vessel and it is now on display! Incredibly fragile and prone to rotting away once raised, as with other old shipwrecks conservation measures had to be meticulous in not only gently raising the pieces but also in preserving them. The fascinating relic can be viewed at the Musée départemental Arles Antique in Arles, France.
Question for students (and subscribers): What ship would you like to see raised? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Broadwater, John. USS Monitor: A Historic Ship Completes Its Final Voyage. Texas A&M University Press, 2012.
Hicks, Brian. Sea of Darkness: Unraveling the Mysteries of the H.L. Hunley. Spry Publishing, 2015.
Hocker, Frederick. Vasa: A Swedish Warship. Medstroms Bokforlag, 2011.
Madsen, Daniel. Resurrection: Salvaging the Battle Fleet at Pearl Harbor. Naval Institute Press, 2013.
The featured image in this article, a photograph by Barbara Voulgaris, Naval Historical Center, of Confederate Submarine H.L. Hunley, suspended from a crane during her recovery from Charleston Harbor, 8 August 2000, is a work of a sailor or employee of the U.S. Navy, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, it is in the public domain in the United States.