Some Navy & Confederate Shipwrecks in Florida
The following is a brief history of five of the more than 300 shipwrecks for which historical and archaeological information has been assembled by the Florida Legacy Project. Each of the following five shipwrecks is considered unique in some respect. They are listed chronologically by date of loss.
USS Alligator was launched, November 2, 1820, and commissioned in March 1821. Alligator's short, but intensive, period of naval service was involved with combating the problem of the slave trade. In 1821, Alligator was dispatched to the coast of Africa, where her officers helped negotiate the purchase of Liberia as an American protectorate. The new territory was intended to serve as a haven for former American slaves, where they could start a new life. Alligator was one of the first Navy ships dispatched to Florida following the acquisition of Florida by the U.S. from Spain in 1821. Alligator was assigned patrol duty to help suppress the rampant piracy which existed in the Florida Keys, and off the coasts of Cuba. While returning from a naval action against pirates off the coast of Cuba, Alligator ran aground on Carysford (later renamed Alligator) Reef, in the Florida Keys, near present-day Islamorada, on November 19, 1822. When Alligator's officers and crew determined that she couldn't be saved, they set fire to her to prevent her re-capture by pirates. The vessel exploded when fire reached her munitions' areas. Her officers and crew were rescued and taken off the Reef. Alligator may be considered to be the first Navy ship wrecked in Florida.
The site of USS Alligator is located in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (FKNMS) and its location has been generally known by divers for many years. The site of USS Alligator is presently being nominated to the National Register of Historic Places by the Naval Historical Center. A brief reconnaissance survey project was completed in October 1995 by several state and federal agencies. One longer-term objective is to determine a management strategy for the site.
The 250-ton, two masted schooner William H. Judah was built sometime prior to 1861. In early September 1861, Confederate forces contracted with the Judah and LeBaron Company for the use of the Judah. The Confederates then sailed Judah from St. John, New Brunswick, Canada, to Pensacola, Florida with a load of mercury, tin, and lead. Judah successfully ran the Union blockade and reached Pensacola safely. While moored in the Pensacola Navy Yard, Judah was set on fire in a daring night raid by sailors from USS Colorado, on the night of September 13-14, 1861. Judah drifted from her moorings to a location near Fort Barrancas before sinking. This raid resulted in the first loss of life in Florida during the Civil War.
The general location of the site of the Judah is known, but fieldwork is required for ground-truthing and to answer other questions. Judah is an important example of a privately-owned vessel modified for wartime service by the Confederates.
USS Preble was built as a sloop-of-war and launched June 13, 1839. Commissioned in 1840, she had a long and colorful worldwide naval service career, prior to the Civil War. Preble was serving as a guard ship moored in Pensacola Bay on April 27, 1863, when a fire began on board, started by a careless crewman. Preble was abandoned by her crew and later exploded.
In 1963, Navy divers located a wreck they believed to be that of Preble and recovered a number of artifacts, including a mast. Other than these artifacts, the wreck was basically left intact.
USS Columbine is believed to have originally been the A.H. Schultz, which was built in New York in 1850 as a sidewheel tug for use in New York Harbor. A.H. Schultz was purchased by the Navy Department December 12, 1862, and renamed USS Columbine. She was outfitted by Howe & Copeland, New York. Commissioned in late 1862 or early 1863, Columbine was used in the Atlantic Blockading Squadron off South Carolina. In May 1864, Columbine was sent to Jacksonville, Florida, in support of the Union expeditionary force which was operating along the St. John's River against Confederate forces. On May 23, 1864, while returning from a trip to Palatka, near Horse Landing, Columbine was attacked by land-based Confederate forces equipped with an artillery piece. She ran aground, and was subsequently captured and burned. More than half of Columbine's crew were killed or wounded in the fighting. Many men also drowned while trying to escape the carnage by swimming. The destruction of USS Columbine was one of the few instances in which a Union warship was destroyed by land-based forces during the Civil War in Florida. During the spring of 1864, the Confederates managed to sink four other Union ships in the St. John's River with the use of a new weapon, the floating torpedo, or mine.
USS Massachusetts (BB-2), was built in Philadelphia in 1891, as one of three of Indiana-class battleships. Massachusetts saw active service in the Spanish-American War, off the coast of Cuba. Massachusetts was decommissioned in 1919, and renamed Coast Battleship No. 2. She was struck from the Navy list and loaned to the War Department as a target ship. She was scuttled as a target off Pensacola, Florida in 1921 for an artillery expiriment. Title to the Massachusetts was transferred to the State of Florida in 1956. In 1993, USS Massachusetts was designated as Florida's fourth Underwater Archaeological Preserve.
Ship paintings courtesy of William L. Trotter