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Mark Brown: War treasure rediscovered


By Mark Brown

This isn't a story about local antiques, but it is a local antiques story.


June 12th is the 149th anniversary of the sinking of the C.S.S. Alabama by the U.S.S. Kearsarge off the coast of Cherbourg, France. At a local auction in early February of this year, my wife June and I purchased three maritime steam pressure gauges attached to a large wooden plaque.

It wasn't until we got home did I open an envelope that had been tucked behind one of the gauges and read "... the one with no glass lens is by far the most historically significant. It comes from the engine room of the USS KEARSARGE, the first Navy ship to bear this name, a steam sloop of war belonging to our Civil War Navy, which contested the Confederate raider of similar rig in an epic battle in Cherbourg Harbor, France, and defeated the opponent ... the CSS ALABAMA.".

How did this Civil War maritime treasure end up in the Shenandoah Valley? The story goes back to that evening of Feb. 2, when the USS Kearsarge was en route from Port au Prince, Haiti to Bluefields, Nicaragua. The seas off the Nicaraguan coast were gentle as the crew of the U.S.S. Kearsarge prepared to settle down for the night. Suddenly, the shrill cry, "Breakers on the port bow!" rang out.

Within seconds of the lookout's shout, the gallant steam sloop slid onto the coral of Roncador Reef under full sail, signaling the beginning of the end for one of the most famous ships of the United States Navy. Within days the crew was rescued and the Navy Department awarded a contract to the Boston Towboat Company to hopefully refloat the Kearsage and tow her back to Boston.

By the time the wrecking steamer Orion arrived off Roncador Bank on Thursday morning, March 22, only a small section of her stern remained. Without anyone guarding the ship, wreckers had stripped her and then set the ship on fire to salvage the copper sheathing covering the hull.

According to assistant engineer S.S. Robinson. "When we reached the reef, all that was left of the Kearsarge was about 25 feet of the stern, her boilers and the engine."

After salvaging what little remained, the Orion arrived back in Boston on April 5 with artifacts retrieved from the ship. At some point, the Orion's Captain, William M. Smith, sold an unspecified quantity of those artifacts to the famous Bannerman's (military surplus dealer) in New York City. On page 331 of their 1925 catalog, a brief listing appears, "Steam Gauge, from wreck of U.S. Warship Kearsarge, serviceable order, $18.00." Finally, in 1949, a young college student purchased it and the gauge dropped out of sight until that February auction.

But, that's not the final twist to the story. The Kearsarge's Boston Steam Gauge, serial number 169784, was mounted next to an identical model Boston Steam Gauge we purchased that same day, but with no documentation. Would you believe serial number 169780? I wonder what civil war era ship it come from and, if it could speak, what stories would it tell?

Only one other Union Civil War ship is more famous than the Kearsarge, and that is the U.S.S. Monitor, which is presently undergoing preservation and study in Norfolk. Today, there are few Civil War maritime artifacts in private collections, and even fewer artifacts with as famous a pedigree as the U.S.S. Kearsarge. To have survived the wreck and the "pirate" salvage operations, not to mention two scrap metal drives during the world wars, is nearly incomprehensible.

Both gauges have now been consigned to Boston Harbor Auctions, one of the premiere maritime artifact auction houses on the East Coast. They are expected to go on the block in September.


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