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L.A. Man Plans Salvage of Civil War Battleship : USS Kearsarge, Forgotten Almost a Century, Believed to Be Sunken Vessel in the Caribbean

March 12, 1987|PAUL DEAN | Times Staff Writer

Welcome, brave Kearsarge's crew;

Welcome notes now ring for you;

Smiling faces all around

Bid the welcome notes resound.

--1864 song to the U.S. Sloop-of-War Kearsarge written by the Rev. Phineas Stowe, First Baptist Mariners' Church, Boston.

It began as an underwater glimmer on a shallow bottom near a hungry Caribbean reef.

A Honduran lobster diver, Miguel Dixon, brushed sand with his hand and picked up a bronze spike. Then a metal pin and an anchor chain. Then he saw the full litter of barnacled wood.

One Thought

Dixon held one thought as he surfaced: Considering the reputation of these waters, the wood and metal must be clues to a gold galleon.

They weren't. As it now is almost certain, their antiquity may be no earlier than 1861, their origins no more glamorous than the Navy Yard at Portsmouth, N. H.

Yet there is little doubt that they are trove and historically priceless . . . as fastenings and leavings from the USS Kearsarge, a legend of Civil War naval action.

"She was the victor in the war's only ship-on-ship engagement outside United States waters," Steven Morgan said.

He's a buccaneer's namesake from Los Angeles who has spent two decades diving for sunken history and lost gold. Now he is preparing to recover the Kearsarge and bring her remains home.

"Everybody's heard about the USS Constitution, the Merrimac and the Monitor . . . but the Kearsarge was the most famous ship to see action during the Civil War, a prized piece of history."

Lincoln's Choice

The steam and sail-powered Kearsarge (from the hard oak lumbered at Kearsarge Mountain in New Hampshire) was President Abraham Lincoln's personal choice to dog the Alabama, a Confederate titan that in three seasons (1861-64) was 66-0 against Union shipping.

The Kearsarge eventually shot it out with this Rambo four miles off the French port of Cherbourg. The Confederate privateer went down after an 80-minute duel (more than 500 shells were exchanged) and her end was duly and masterfully recorded by two cliff-top spectators: Impressionist Edouard Manet, who painted the scene; and young Auguste Rodin, who photographed it.

"Kearsarge was commended by Lincoln and the Union Congress and for the next 30 years circumnavigated the world protecting American interests as the pride of the U.S. Navy," continued Morgan, 40, the nomadic and clearly gold-feverish president of Galleon Hunters of Van Nuys. The company and its ever-shifting roster of die-hard divers and young romantics have dug for Capt. Kidd's buried treasure and found nothing, unearthed small artifacts of the pirate Bluebeard, and exhumed $72,000 from an encampment near Doltham, Ala. Sadly, it was Confederate money.

"During the Centennial of the U.S. Constitution, it was decided to restore the Kearsarge for all time," Morgan said. "When her sea service was done, she was to be given a place of honor in dry dock. But that future was to last only another six years."

In 1894 the Kearsarge raised steam and sail to assist Mosquito Indians against Nicaraguan attack. The coal-burning, 214-foot, metal-sheathed Kearsarge was upon Roncador Cay, 200 miles east of Nicaragua, when she struck a reef and was abandoned. The sea became her wrecker.

"The government offered $45,000 for anyone who could tow her home, not repair her, just bring her home," Morgan said. "One company tried. But she was too far gone. Then, somehow, she just slipped through the pages of history."

There was the Industrial Revolution. The rebuilding of the United States. Development of the all-steel Navy. Amid such distractions, the Kearsarge sprawled largely forgotten for 92 years while slowly being dismantled by the tides and storms and currents of the Caribbean.

Then, last year, Miguel Dixon found a bronze spike.

He knew there was a gringo treasure hunter in the area. He found Morgan at Brus Lagoon, Honduras, on the infamous Mosquito Coast. Morgan was digging for (and finding) bottles and doubloons and shot left by Bluebeard.

"Miguel told me he thought he'd found a galleon and was going to be rich," Morgan remembered. "Of course, spikes themselves don't mean a galleon. But spikes and cannon do because in the early 1600s, King Philip of Spain decreed that his galleons would be armed.

"So in February, 1986, we launched a major expedition to Roncador, basically to make an ID on what this was . . . while figuring it was part of a 1605 treasure fleet."

No Cannon, No Gold

Morgan's team found neither cannon nor gold. They did recover more than 300 pounds of oak still hard enough to resist Morgan's diving knife. The anchor chain, to no great surprise, was shackled to an anchor. There were more pins and spikes, great chunks of sheathing, wooden gaskets and a porcelain cup.

A series of pictures and some of the pieces were sent to Washington and Mendel Peterson, the 25-year chief marine archeologist, recently retired, of the Smithsonian Institution.

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