Civil War Brown Water Navies

The Civil War in NE North Carolina

Barry Cullens and I have been discussing a renewal of the search for the CSS Sea Bird. Barry has done sonar scans of the Pasquotank River in the past that turned up 6 likely locations. I located some information this past summer that helps narrow things down even further.

I wasn't looking for Sea Bird information at the time. I was looking for signal flags. Philip Madre, finder of the CSS Appomattox, was having a painting made of the Appomattox escaping up the river towards the Elizabeth City waterfront and he wanted things to look as authentic as possible, so he asked me what types of signal flags she would have been flying.

A copy of the North Carolina Squadron signal book survived the battle. I have a copy of it, so I dug it up and started looking for the appropriate signal flags. The book belonged to Midshipman Robert Camm. Camm had his arm shot off during the battle of Roanoke Island while serving aboard the CSS Ellis. When the Ellis was captured during the battle of Elizabeth City, Camm's signal book was discovered by the boarding party.

What caught my eye was some additional information Camm had recorded in his copy of the signal book. He had written down Lynch's various battle formation plans and the signals for them. From written accounts, I had come to believe that the Sea Bird was posted nearer to the Camden side of the river. Camm's notes placed her nearer to the center of the river, dead center in the mosquito fleet's formation. 

Two years ago Philip Madre's diving team came down three Saturdays and dragged a magnetometer around some of the most likely spots for the wreck. We got a big hit near the center of the river, but at the time I still had the mistaken idea that she was near the Camden side. I did save the GPS coordinates and they are close to one of the wrecks Barry sighted with his sonar.

Barry is talking about doing a new scan of the river to see if anything new was uncovered by Hurricane Irene. Large rainfalls speed up the currents and scour out the bottom of the channel, uncovering items buried in the silt. Maybe he will find some new clues.

Finding divers for the project has been a problem. Barry thinks he may have found a second diver. I've been checking around for divers as well. Christopher Olsen suggested that I contact the Maritime Studies program at East Carolina, which I did. Dr. Babits quickly passed the word on to the first year students that might be looking for research projects. Several responded.

We hit a snag. East Carolina implemented a safety requirement several years ago. New students in the department have to take a boat handling and safety course before they can use school equipment on a project. Many students were entering the program without these skills, so ECU made the prudent move to ensure their safety.

Hopefully, the East Carolina grad students will be able to join in on the search sometime in the spring or summer of 2012 once some of them clear the departmental hurdles. I had hoped the Sea Bird could be found before the sesquicentennial, but I can live with sometime within the 150th anniversary year.

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