Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Wreck of U.S. Coast Survey Ship Identified

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on August 28, 2013
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In 1852, W.A.K. Martin painted this picture of the Robert J. Walker. The painting, now at the Mariner’s Museum in Newport News, Va., is scheduled for restoration. (Credit: The Mariners’ Museum)

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On Tuesday, the folks at NOAA’s Maritime Heritage Program announced the identification of the wreck of the U.S. Coast Survey steamship Robert J. Walker, that was sunk in a collision with a sailing ship in June 1860 off the Jersey shore. From the announcement:

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More than 153 years after it was lost in a violent collision at sea, government and university maritime archaeologists have identified the wreck of the ship Robert J. Walker, a steamer that served in the U.S. Coast Survey, a predecessor agency of NOAA.
 
The Walker, while now largely forgotten, served a vital role as a survey ship, charting the Gulf Coast – including Mobile Bay and the Florida Keys – in the decade before the Civil War. It also conducted early work plotting the movement of the Gulf Stream along the Atlantic Coast.
 
Twenty sailors died when the Walker sank in rough seas in the early morning hours of June 21, 1860, ten miles off Absecon Inlet on the New Jersey coast. The crew had finished its latest surveys in the Gulf of Mexico and was sailing to New York when the Walker was hit by a commercial schooner off New Jersey. The side-wheel steamer, carrying 66 crewmembers, sank within 30 minutes. The sinking was the largest single loss of life in the history of the Coast Survey and its successor agency, NOAA.
In late June, 2013, the NOAA ship Thomas Jefferson, surveying in the area to chart post-Hurricane Sandy changes in coastal waters – an essential job to ensure safe navigation with a major part of the economy based on the movement of goods by water – transited the area where Robert J. Walker was known to have been lost and laid a memorial wreath on the water. Using the sophisticated sonar mapping technology of Thomas Jefferson, The Office of Coast Survey’s Vitad Pradith, working with East Carolina University graduate student and archaeologist Joyce Steinmetz and the crew of Thomas Jefferson did a survey of the area and focused on the previously charted wreck thought to be Walker.

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After a ceremony last month onboard NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson, Ensign Eileen Pye lays a wreath over the waters where USCS Robert J. Walker sank. (Credit: NOAA)Blank

You can read a detailed, contemporary news account of the disaster, from the June 23, 1860 issue of the New York Commercial Advertiser here.

Videos from the wreck site are online here. The visibility is pretty lousy, but the exposed part of the wreck is similar in many ways to that of U.S.S. Hatteras, that was the focus os a NOAA-led expedition last year. Some of the preservation on the Walker site is remarkable. There are even remnants of what are believed to be wool blankets, that have been preserved by being covered in mud, in an anaerobic environment, until recently. (Hurricane Sandy may have played a role in exposing these materials.)

In her career as a survey vessel, Robert J. Walker probably served off Galveston, as she spent considerable time operating in the Gulf of Mexico. As it happens, her commanding officer during much of that period was Benjamin Franklin Sands (right, 1811-1883), whose first-hand knowledge of the hydrography of the Texas coast would prove useful some years later, when he commanded the Union squadron on blockade duty off Galveston during the closing days of the Civil War. It was Captain Sands who formally accepted Galveston’s surrender in June 1865, an event that effectively ended the Union blockade of Southern ports. You can download a high-res copy of one of Sands’ charts, compiled during his tenure aboard Robert J. Walker, here.

Congrats to NOAA’s Maritime Heritage Program and all its partners in this endeavor.

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