Putting the pieces together: Civil War exhibit helps marine archaeologist identify shipwreck artifacts

USS WestfieldTo prepare for an assault on the Confederacy by water, privately owned boats were purchased and converted into war vessels by the Union Navy. Among these were almost two dozen ferryboats that were converted into gunboats.

A particular Staten Island ferryboat named Westfield, originally owned by Cornelius Vanderbilt, ended up down the road in Galveston Bay — for nearly 150 years. She wrecked at the conclusion of the 1863 Battle of Galveston, one of the most unusual battles of the Civil War.

After her purchase by the U.S. Navy in 1861, Westfield was armored and converted into a gunboat. Westfield saw significant Civil War action, participating in battles at New Orleans, Vicksburg and other places along the Gulf Coast. Her destruction at the Battle of Galveston on January 1, 1863, was one of the most important and dramatic events of the Civil War in Texas. The Confederate victory won back the port from Union forces. The port stayed in Confederate hands the remainder of the war, and saved Texas from the damaging effects of occupation and battle suffered by other southern states.

In the fall of 2009, a team of marine archeologists, working under the direction of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, supervised the recovery of artifacts from this unique “fighting ferryboat.” It was a massive and challenging project. The team recovered tons of artifacts — including parts of the ship, a 4-ton Dahlgren cannon and personal effects of the crew.

Immediately after the artifacts were recovered from the bottom of the Galveston Bay, the conservation phase of the project began. Upon surfacing, artifacts undergo an immediate stabilization process to prevent further deterioration. This is the beginning of the long course of conservation work ahead. The desalination process, in which artifacts remain submerged in water, can by itself take six months to two years. After that, artifacts are treated with numerous conservation techniques, depending on the item’s material make-up.

Many of the artifacts that have completed the conservation process at the Conservation Research Laboratory at Texas A&M University are on display with the Discovering the Civil War exhibition at HMNS.

In March, several members of the USS Westfield Project were at HMNS for a lecture: Robert Gearhart, Principal Investigator; Amy Borgens, State Marine Archeologist with the Texas Historical Commission; Edward T. Cotham, Jr., project historian and author of Battle on the Bay: The Civil War Struggle for Galveston. With the group was also Justin Parkoff, who is currently working on conservation of artifacts at the Conservation Research Laboratory at Texas A&M University.

While at HMNS, Parkoff toured the Civil War exhibition and experienced a eureka moment while viewing the artifacts on display from the Nau Civil War Collection. He spotted a Union belt buckle with a familiar shape.

Parkoff had been working on conserving two seemingly unrelated artifacts from the Westfield wreck site, but no one had been able to identify what they were — until now.
“This is exciting because we have so few personal artifacts from Westfield,” Parkoff explained.

Below are the two recovered artifacts.

westfield-artifacts

Below is a photo of a replica buckle, identical to the one on display at HMNS from the Nau Collection.

replica-buckle

Want to learn more about excavating and conserving shipwrecks?

Join HMNS for an exclusive behind-the-scenes tour of the Texas A&M Conservation Research Laboratory on June 16. After learning how researchers locate shipwrecks and recover items from the wreck site, tour the labs to see the different stages of artifact conservation. Starting with indistinguishable concretions, from small specimens to large sections of a ship, you will see how items are transformed in lab treatments.

Our guides are Dr. Donny Hamilton, director of the Conservation Research Laboratory, and Justin Parkoff, graduate student from the Texas A&M University Nautical Archaeology Program. Considered the leading research institution in the world for shipwreck archaeology, teams from Texas A&M have located, recovered and conserved shipwrecks from around the world.

Click here for more information and to purchase tickets. Tickets availability is limited. Advance ticket purchase is required.

Don’t miss the chance to see Discovering the Civil War before it leaves Houston. The last day on view is April 29.

Richard Dowling, The Battle of Sabine Pass, and The Davis Guards Medal

In Texas! The Exhibition you can view hundreds of objects, each with fascinating back stories. Some of these amazing artifacts belonged to well known national heroes and some to local heroes.

As I stroll through the exhibit’s Civil War section, I’m often drawn to one small and shiny object named the Davis Guards medal. I’m a history nerd, but until recently I wasn’t familiar with Davis Guards metals.

Engraved on the metal are the words: Jack White| Sabine Pass| Sept: 8th| 1863. A document in the case above the metal has the signature of a 1st Lieutenant by the name of R W Dowling.

Together, these objects reveal an interesting story.

It’s a story this history “connoisseur” still might have overlooked if something in the text panel had not caught my eye. According to the panel, the Davis Guards medal on display is one of three held in private hands, and it is one of only seven that are known to still be in existence.

However, being rare does not always translate to being fascinating. As I was preparing to begin my research for our upcoming Discovering the Civil War exhibition, I noticed something interesting.

On a rough draft of objects we hope to have on display is yet ANOTHER shiny disk with the words: Sabine Pass| Sept: 8th| 1863. I was intrigued. If only three of these are in the hands of private collectors and HMNS may have the honor of displaying a second Davis Guard medal, this piece is more fascinating.

But who was R W Dowling? What was his connection to the Davis Guards medal? What happened at the Battle of Sabine Pass? And most importantly, why is this medal significant? Since the discovery of the second medal to be displayed I have been obsessively researching to find more about these topics.

The Davis Guards Medal
The Davis Medal
See more photos from the Texas exhibit on Flickr.

Richard William “Dick” Dowling was born in 1838 in an area called Tuam (pronounced choo-um), which is located in Ireland.

He and his family left Ireland at the start of the potato famine in 1845 and settled in New Orleans, Louisiana. While living in Louisiana, Dowling’s parents and four of his siblings died of yellow fever in 1853. After the loss of his parents, he and a few siblings moved across the Louisiana border to Texas.

Dowling settled in Houston where he met, fell in love with, and married Elizabeth Odlum. With the support of Elizabeth’s family, Dowling was able to start and maintain several successful saloon businesses and became a founding member of the Houston Hook and Ladder Company No. 1 (which later became the Houston Fire Department), and even owned one of the first oil and gas companies in Texas. His saloons were outfitted with gas lighting as a result of this investment. Richard Dowling was indeed a prominent local businessman.

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, like many men during this time, Dick Dowling went off to war.

He joined a group of other Irish immigrants. His group would help the Confederate army remove the Union blockade during the Battle of Galveston. During that battle, the USS Westfield sank off the coast (HMNS will display some objects from the USS Westfield in the Discovering the Civil War exhibition). Dowling and his group were in charge of guarding the coast of Texas until they were given a new assignment, the Sabine Pass.

Dowling was placed in charge of a group of 47 men of the Davis Guards, which was named after the current Confederate States of America’s president. Under his uncompromising leadership, he drilled his men until they could properly shoot up to 2,000 yards, which was the length to clear the Sabine Pass.

What Dowling and his men did on September 8, 1863 would go down in history as one of the greatest military upsets on American soil.

The 47 men of the Davis Guard were faced with 5,000 enemy soldiers. Instead of drawing back, according to his official report, Dowling and his men used a motto that once brought heartache to Texas.

They shouted “Victory or Death” as they aggressively attacked the Union forces.

After 45 minutes, the Union soldiers retreated and the battle was over. The Davis Guards hadn’t lost a single man. They captured 350 prisoners, and 50 Union soldiers lay dead that day in a solid victory for the CSA. The Union forces would never again threaten Texas in a major confrontation until the Battle of Palmito Ranch (also a CSA victory), which was fought over a month after the Civil War had ended. The victory at the Battle of Sabine Pass was one of the reasons that Texas was the only southern state to never be successfully occupied during the Civil War.

President Jefferson Davis was so pleased with the underdog victory that he asked the Confederate Congress to approve the commission of medals for the Davis Guard.

The medal is thought to be the only one commissioned by the Confederate Congress. Each Guards member would receive a silver round medal attached to a green ribbon (in honor of their Irish background) that was engraved with Sabine Pass| Sept: 8th| 1863 on one side, and on the other D.G. with either a Maltese cross or the CSA flag below the initials. Naturally, being an honorary member of the Davis Guards, President Davis was also given a medal along with every Davis Guards member.

The Confederate flag was the shortest reigning flag in Texas’ history, and even though the “war of northern aggression” would bring this chapter in our history to a close, it provided us with local Texas heroes.

In Texas! The Exhibition there are amazing artifacts from Texas’ proud past. Don’t miss the chance to see a rare part of history that is on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

And don’t forget to join us in October for our new special exhibition Discovering the Civil War!