Historical Society receives update on shipwreck survey

Peter J. Teagle - Posted on Apr 26, 2018 - 08:24 AM

The Gloucester Historical Society welcomed Watermen’s Museum Education Director Mike Steen to its quarterly meeting on Sunday to talk about the status of projects to document and preserve the historic shipwrecks of the York River.

From Abingdon Episcopal Church’s fellowship hall, Steen addressed upwards of 50 attendees on projects pertaining to wrecks from the American Revolution, Civil War, and late 19th century.

As reported last week, surveying is ongoing on multiple targets from Lord Cornwallis’ scuttled fleet at Yorktown. Steen addressed the history of these shipwrecks, past and current archeological efforts, as well as future plans for the sites.

Photo: The Betsy, a British merchant brig, was incorrectly identified in last week’s Gazette-Journal as a recently discovered shipwreck. Also known as YO88, the vessel was excavated in the late 1970s and early 1980s by John Broadwater and the Virginia Division of Historic Landmarks. To improve diving conditions, a cofferdam was built around the wreck.

The Betsy, a British merchant brig, was incorrectly identified in last week’s Gazette-Journal as a recently discovered shipwreck. Also known as YO88, the vessel was excavated in the late 1970s and early 1980s by John Broadwater and the Virginia Division of Historic Landmarks. To improve diving conditions, a cofferdam was built around the wreck.

During the siege at Yorktown, following the intentional sinking of ships by the British to protect their rear from a potential landing by French marines, several vessels were sunk on both sides of the river in subsequent action.

Three “fireships,” remnants of an attempt to break the French line at the mouth of the river, are believed to be near the meeting place of Sarah’s Creek and the York.

These ships were loaded with combustibles and sent towards the French frigates that guarded downriver during the Yorktown siege in 1781. The intent was to light them at such a time that they would crash into the French vessels and catch them on fire, sinking or disabling them in the process. 

This would have made it possible to escape into the bay and north to British forces in other colonies farther up the Chesapeake.

Fortunately for the American and French forces, the ships were lit too early and grounded on shoals short of their targets. They have yet to be positively identified.