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Founded to assist in CSS Alabama dispute, the CNHS turned out to do much, much more to save the Confederate Navy.

By John Townley

When the Abandoned Shipwreck Act, designed to protect sunken historic vessels from looters, was signed into law in 1988, it seemed to many in the maritime history community like it was effectively hot air. Vague wording and lack of real provisions for enforcement meant that looters continued to have a field day trashing what were often naval gravesites to make a quick buck on the burgeoning relics market. Things looked bleak, especially for Civil War vessels (CW reenacting was booming, relics were in high demand), and even more for Confederate Navy vessels because they were mainly the ones on the bottom, having lost the war.

Although few were aware at the time, the ghost of the Confederate Navy’s most celebrated surface raider, the CSS Alabama, was about to surface like some avenging wraith and in just a few short years cast a net of protection over all her undefended comrades in the deep. Her wreck had been discovered off Cherbourg, France only four years before and there was active contention over who owned her remains, France or the U.S., with vocal proponents for each side not even agreeing to disagree on the subject. On the American side, an Alabama Association was forming in Mobile, Alabama, home of her captain Raphael Semmes to counter the similarly-named French association, when Georgia merchant marine officer and historian Michael P. Higgins and Tennessee lawyer and preservationist Roger DeMik approached Kevin Foster, then curator of the Confederate Naval Museum (now the Civil War Naval Museum) in Columbus, Georgia with the suggestion of forming an independent organization to help encourage cooperation on both sides.

CSS Alabama was the beginning, and the rest of the Confederate Navy followed quickly

A few more maritime historians and preservation activists were corralled, including a star-spangled, who’s-who board of advisers who were wonderfully supportive of the effort, and I was selected to spearhead the new organization as president, mainly because I had the time, personal resources, and contacts to completely throw into the project. Plus, just as important, I was politically neutral and not hampered by working for or with a government (either one) or other special interest group. It was called The Confederate Naval Historical Society, founded as a not-for-profit corporation in Virginia, October 20, 1988, officially chartered for the purposes of promoting Confederate naval history and preserving the remains of the vessels of the Confederate Navy.

Although the disputes over the Alabama had inspired its creation, and we did have some fruitful talks and visits with the parties involved, that project was already taking a turn for the better, regardless. The rest of the remains of the Confederate Navy, it turned out, were not. Our first emergency was news that the Port of Richmond, under Federal funding, was about to widen the channel of the James River at Drewrey’s Bluff, which would entail the total destruction of three completely-preserved Confederate ironclads beneath the mud, the Virginia II, the Richmond, and the Fredericksburg, Confederate Navy Secretary Maury’s “chained bulldogs” that had protected Richmond from invasion up until the very end of the war. A quick drive to Drewrey’s Bluff revealed actual dredging marker buoys, awaiting the beginning of the project only two weeks away. How had Richmond managed to sidestep the built-in protection for these ships, which they knew were there? It turned out they had evaded the necessary Federal historical impact survey by promising to pay for the project themselves up front and collect the Federal funds further down the line. Clever ruse, indeed, and the Richmond city manager was making lots of political capital ballyhooing the opening up the port to bigger vessels and new trade. Calls to state and city preservation authorities were met with a shrug, and it seemed nothing could be done. Then it occurred to one of us that perhaps the dredgers themselves had been kept in the dark about this and wouldn’t appreciate breaking their machinery smashing into several two-hundred ton iron objects. A much-welcomed call to their company cracked the whole thing open, and another to the newspapers exposed the entire operation. It was quickly cancelled, and the city manager was fired. But most important, the three best-preserved ironclads of the Civil War still remain peacefully intact until funds can eventually be found to recover them.


Wrecks of CSS Florida and USS Cumberland were being looted, resulting in CNHS-generated  FBI sting

No sooner had that fire been put out then another one surfaced, in the form of relic-dealers’ ads for reproduction CSN belt buckles made from melted-down fastenings from the CSS Florida, in addition to relics from the USS Cumberland, a war grave, which everyone had assumed were still peacefully lying next to each other on the bottom at Hampton Roads. Not so, apparently. A couple of ambitious watermen were busily raking the wrecks with oyster dredges and selling everything they could find. Again, calls to Virginia state preservation department and even to the U.S. Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) brought nothing but a series of buck-passings and assurances of no support. It was somebody else’s job.

So, in an evening of despair, our board of directors sat in my living room wondering just whose job it was, if not the federal and state services created for the purpose. It looked hopeless, indeed. Then, the question arose: who actually owned this stuff that was being stolen? Well, technically, the government did – all Confederate property at the end of the war officially became property of the General Accounting Office (GAO). And, who do you call when someone is robbing the government? The FBI.

That sounded a bit too much like television, but I was on the phone the next morning to the Hampton Roads FBI office with the tale, and they had only one question for me: “Is this stuff worth over $10,000?”  You bet. “Well that’s ten years in prison and a $10,000 fine” came their reply, and all they needed were the details. The details included corresponding with relic dealers and taking photos of the stolen artifacts, plus taping phone calls with them naming names, dates, and locations of all involved in the operation. It seemed to take them forever, but they did a thorough job, and just as the most important items were about to go on auction at a major Civil War relics show in Richmond, FBI agents swooped down in simultaneous raids on multiple dealers, including the largest in Virginia, arresting them and seizing so many artifacts they had to rent a hotel room to store them in until the Hampton Roads Naval Museum agreed to take charge of what had been confiscated. In the subsequent trial, two watermen were convicted of felonies, and the CNHS became very unpopular among local watermen and sport divers (well, the greedy ones, anyway).

More important, however, was the controversy it stirred up within government agencies who should have been enforcing the Abandoned Shipwrecks Act. After the NCIS being scooped by the FBI, the Navy became far more interested in historical wrecks, with the help of one of our board members, William S. Dudley, then senior historian at the U.S. Naval Historical Center. It now polices wrecks and prosecutes offenders, all one could ask for, and barring future enforcement neglect or new and more clever perpetrators, the bulk of the underwater Confederate Navy has been saved. For our efforts, I was honored to receive on behalf of the CNHS the first-ever cash reward ($500) from the Department of the Interior under the provisions of the Abandoned Shipwreck Act, for assisting in its enforcement.

After a successful court case over fake Alabama
bell, the real thing was found on the wreck itself

After this intensely dramatic episode, things began to lighten up a bit, as the Navy took the reins and before long had seized what was alleged to be the ship’s bell of the Alabama from a New Jersey relic dealer, which he was looking to sell for $100,000. The question was, was it real? The poor fellow was damned either way – if it was real, he was under arrest for theft, if not then it was fraud. Worse, it turned out to be an elaborate hoax, which we uncovered through our agents in England and wrote up in our newsletter in an interview with the man who had set it up as a joke, years before. The newspapers ate it up, and illegal relic sellers were reminded once again that the eagle was watching them.

When there were no ships left to save, we turned to other matters Confederate and naval, including successfully lobbying Strom Thurmond’s office for badly needed seawall repairs to prevent the imminent destruction of Fort Fisher, which had protected blockade runners supplying the Confederacy through the port of Wilmington, NC. And, throughout, supported by a large and enthusiastic paying membership who rallied to the cause, we published a newsletter that included regular original research articles by noted naval historians, stories of major (and minor) vessels, their careers, and their final resting places, along with the latest news and inside information behind the Confederate naval stories of the day.

By the time the submarine CSS Hunley surfaced  in Charleston, the rest of the CSN was finally safe

But, after only seven years of existence, it was becoming clear that the CNHS had accomplished most of its mission. When the history-making Confederate submarine CSS Hunley was discovered in Charleston harbor in 1995, there were no attendant relic hunters to chase off, only legit archaeologists and historical societies along with authorities hovering close by to see that nothing untoward was done. The CSN, such as was left of it, was safe and had never had so much interest, good press, and revived research. Even the Alabama, with many a genial Franco-American handshake, was being carefully explored and its artifacts retrieved and carefully restored for museum display, including the real ship’s bell. There really wasn’t much for us to do anymore.

So, when I moved out of my house in Virginia, CNHS VP Kevin Foster, by then the head of the Federal National Maritime Initiative, took the small CNHS library and records to his basement for safekeeping. Ironically, there they were destroyed by a flood, suffering the same fate as most of the navy they helped preserve. Somehow, seemingly safe on land, the organization managed to join its navy next to Davy Jones’ locker, but only after its job was done.

In retrospect, the CNHS remains a shining example of skilled and dedicated organization and cooperation of the private and public sectors, at home and abroad, that is often difficult in the frequently-contentious climate of historical preservation and especially underwater archaeology. Technically, CNHS is actually still alive – it’s even listed as an affiliate of the Council of American Maritime Museums (CAMM) –  but in practical reality it has joined the ranks of the likes of the Alabama which inspired it, a well-satisfied wraith with a genuine government award for its mission, accomplished.


The CNHS Newsletter: 

We are posting as many issues of the CNHS newsletter as we’ve been able to locate – so far, issues #2-9, plus #11 – and if anyone out there has #1, #10, or any of the half-dozen from #12 on, please do send us xeroxes or PDFs of them so we can hopefully make a complete collection available for all. Contact us at

#1 --

#2 -- October '89 -- Alabama accord signed, CSS Florida story, Ironclad Database, Maury house danger

#3 -- February '90 -- Mobile Bay vessels (by Clive Cussler), CSS Stonewall, Capt. Thomas J. Lockwood

#4 -- July '90 -- FBI Seizures complete, CSS Sumter, lost ironclad Atlanta, responsible sport diving

#5 -- October '90 -- Battlefield Protection Program, Music in the CSN, Confederate Naval Bibliography

#6 -- February '91 -- Alabama Bell Seized, CSN Missile Mystery, CSS Tallahassee, Alabama Commission

#7 -- June '91 -- Alabama bell awarded to Navy, Ft. Fisher peril, The Star of the West

#8 -- October '91 -- Liverpool CHQ, Blockade runner America/Camilla, plus "The Littlest Blockade Runner"

#9 -- February '92 -- Alabama treasures displayed at Navy Museum, John McIntosh Kell, Commodore Tucker

#10 -- 

#11 -- October '92 -- Navy wins bell case, Ft. Fisher snafu, Mobile Bay report reveals looting, NPS helps


  Copyright © John Townley 2009. All rights reserved.
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