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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>