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    Secrets of a Civil War Shipwreck | Archaeology Magazine

    The oceangoing sidewheel steamship Mary Celestia offers new insight into the desperate struggle between North and South—and faint echoes of her crew’s private aspirations


    Anthropologist Philippe Rouja and archaeologist James Delgado, inside the Mary Celestia’s bow, carefully fan sand into an air lift to expose artifacts buried inside. (Tane Casserley/NOAA)Bermuda is an island nation famous for its shipwrecks. Discovered in 1505 by Spanish mariner Juan de Bermudez, the tiny territory is made up of 181 small islands ringed by reefs that have claimed hundreds of vessels. It was a shipwreck, in fact, that led to the settlement of the islands. Today, Bermuda is home to more than 62,000 people, and some 150 to 300 wrecks are said to be submerged off its beaches and in its maze of reefs.

    Several hundred yards offshore lies the Mary Celestia, an iron-hulled sidewheel steamship that hit the reef off the Gibbs Hill Lighthouse on Bermuda’s southern shore on September 6, 1864. The wreck is visited each year by hundreds of divers drawn by the clear, warm waters, the coral and fish, and the skeleton of the iron steamer laid out in the coralline white sand. Although it is one of Bermuda’s “top ten” diving attractions, Mary Celestia is much more than that. The wreck is an historical and archaeological site tied to one of the most fascinating naval aspects of the U.S. Civil War. It is also a site that has recently yielded new secrets thanks to a hurricane, the watchful eye of a Bermudian scientist and government official, and archaeology.

    Moored over the wreck, our boat sways gently in the azure swell. As we drop into the ocean, the water is a cool 75 degrees and clear. Looking down, we see the disarticulated skeleton of Mary Celestia 57 feet below. Its most prominent features are the boilers, wedged tightly into the hull, with the tops of the engines’ two cylinders between them. On one side, a 14-footdiameter paddlewheel lies facedown on the sand, while its mate remains attached to the engines on the other side. Collapsed hull plates and the tops of rusting iron frames rise like ribs out of the sand and point the way to the sharp, knifelike form of the ship’s bow. The bow lies on its side, the deck angling up toward the surface. Close by the bow, the fluke of an anchor sticks out of the sand.

    I am familiar with the wreck. The site was previously mapped by students working with Gordon P. Watts, Jr., from East Carolina University in 1984, and they have documented the sleek form and construction characteristics of this broken yet wellpreserved ship. Other archaeologists have visited it since then, including me. All of us have suspected that there might be more to the site. But all we had been able to excavate, so far, were a few empty wine bottles collected years ago and now displayed at the Bermuda National Trust Museum at the Globe Hotel in St. Georges.

    What we know from historical records is that Mary Celestia was the product of the Liverpool shipyard of William C. Miller & Sons. Launched in February 1864 and completed two months later when its boilers and engines were installed, Mary Celestia was registered at 207 tons (the amount of cargo it was licensed to carry) and departed for Bermuda. Arriving in May, the steamer commenced the first of four known and perhaps as many as eight trips to Wilmington, North Carolina. Mary Celestia was a blockade runner.

    The start of the American Civil War in April 1861 led to a prolonged four-year conflict on land and sea that neither side had envisioned. In response to the secession of the Southern states, President Abraham Lincoln quickly imposed a naval blockade of the U.S. coast from Virginia to Texas. The blockade, part of the Union’s “Anaconda Plan,” was designed to encircle the South and economically strangle the new Confederacy by stopping exports of Southern cotton, turpentine, and tobacco to Europe, and imports of military supplies and food. At first loosely enforced because the U.S. Navy had few ships to patrol that 3,300 mile section of coast, let alone attempt to conquer the heavily fortified entrances to Southern ports, the blockade began to tighten in 1862 as the Navy added more ships.



    Delgado examines the bow of the Mary Celestia. (Tane Casserley/NOAA) The Southern response to the blockade was the blockade runner. These fast, sleek steamships were manned by daring captains and crews who risked coming under fire from the blockaders and faced possible capture and imprisonment, not to mention shipwreck, as they ran the gauntlet to sneak into sealed-off Southern ports. The blockade runners engaged in an illicit but highly profitable trade that saw basic commodities and luxuries sell for 200 to 700 percent more than they had in peacetime. More than fancy clothes, ladies’ shoes, perfumes, and wines, however, what the government of the Confederate States of America needed were uniforms, boots, medicine, weapons, and ammunition. To prevent blockade-running companies and captains from loading their ships with high-value commodities for better profit, the Confederacy operated government-owned runners, and, in 1864, the Confederate Congress passed a law banning luxury goods on the steamers to focus the incoming cargoes on what was needed to win the war.

    Mary Celestia was one of hundreds of steamers built to run the blockade. William and James Crenshaw, two brothers from Richmond, Virginia, commissioned the ship to serve their business interests in Great Britain and its colonies, including Bermuda. They depended on regular maritime trade, running the blockade with a variety of goods and returning to Bermuda with cotton. Bermuda was the ideal transshipment point for the blockade runners. Its small port of St. Georges was crowded with ships arriving from Halifax, Liverpool, London, and Nassau carrying coal to fuel the runners. They also brought commodities that steamers could quickly run past the blockaded U.S. coast several hundred miles away. The cotton that the runners landed in Bermuda would then be sent to Great Britain in large, slow ships without fear of interception by the U.S. Navy, which stayed close to the American shore.

    Mary Celestia’s brief career was dramatic. Chased by a U.S. Navy blockader, the runner escaped when the captain threw 100 bales of cotton (worth some $100,000) overboard to lighten the load. The engineer then held the safety valves down to get the boilers running hot enough to push the steamer’s engines to 17 knots— enough to outrun the Yankee ship.

    Records also tell us that as a yellow fever epidemic ravaged the crew, the ship’s North Carolina pilot—the man who knew the landmarks by which to safely navigate the hazardous approaches to Wilmington— although himself dying of the fever, stayed at his post as the runner raced past the blockaders. He brought Mary Celestia safely into North Carolina’s Cape Fear River, collapsed, and died.

    On its final voyage, Mary Celestia steamed out of Hamilton, Bermuda, with owner William Crenshaw and Bermuda pilot John Virgin aboard. Loaded with a Confederate government–mandated cargo of canned meat and “general merchandise” (actually munitions and Enfield rifles bound for Wilmington), Mary Celestia steamed along the southern shore of the island to drop off the owner and pilot near the Gibb’s Point Lighthouse, where they both lived. As they approached the shore, according to newspaper accounts, the chief mate shouted that there were rocks ahead. The pilot, in control of the ship’s movements, shouted back that he knew the reefs and rocks as well as he knew his own home. With that, Mary Celestia struck the reef. Several minutes later, as all on board scrambled into lifeboats, the steamer sank, taking with it the ship’s cook, who ran back below to save something of value he had left behind, only to have a door swing shut and trap him. It had been a short life; when it sank, Mary Celestia had been afloat only two years.



    Artist Edward James depicted Mary Celestia’s end in an 1864 watercolor (Courtesy National Museum of Bermuda)

    After the sinking, rumors swirled around the island that the pilot had been bought off by the U.S. Consul in Bermuda and had deliberately wrecked the ship. The Consul, Charles Maxwell Allen, wrote to his superiors in Washington that, “I am happy to say there is no evidence to substantiate their charge. The pilot has been suspended for eighteen months.” Skin divers salvaged much of the cargo, probably blasting down the sides of the hull to get at the cargo holds. Then they left, leaving the iron bones of the 221-foot-long paddlewheeler to slowly fall apart over the next century and a half.

    Philippe Rouja, a cultural and medical anthropologist specializing in maritime communities, has been Bermuda’s Custodian of Historic Wrecks in the Department of Conservation Services since 2004. It is his job to inventory and manage Bermuda’s considerable underwater cultural heritage. Post-hurricane surveys are a regular part of his routine for several significant south-shore shipwrecks. Energetic and committed to his job, the affable Rouja has been diving the Mary Celestia for more than two decades. This has given him deep knowledge of the site and the varied effects that hurricanes have had on it and Bermuda’s other wrecks.

    On September 5, 2003, Hurricane Fabian, a Category 3 storm, sat on Bermuda for an unprecedented 12 hours. In the aftermath of the storm, airline pilots reported seeing in the ocean large white plumes extending out from the area. Eventually a satellite photo was released by NOAA showing plumes of sand extending 26 miles from the shore, attesting to the huge volume of sand shifted off the reef platform and into the deep. When Rouja assumed his post in 2004, dive shops informed him that immediately after Fabian they had unprecedented access to the inside of Mary Celestia’s bow, the only intact section remaining of the steamer’s hull. They reported that sediment had been washed away, revealing intact elements of her rigging and deckcleaning materials including a brass-hooped cleaning bucket and a large demijohn.

    Due to heavy weather, by the time Rouja reached the wreck, the bucket and demijohn were mere fragments of wood and glass, but two large compound rigging blocks lay in a hole just aft of the bow. Rouja consulted with the Historic Wrecks Authority, photographed these items, and then in an effort to conserve them, placed them in a mesh bag and reburied them at the site, covered by 12 heavy sandbags. Consultation with some of the older members of Bermuda’s diving fraternity revealed stories that divers had found artifacts on Mary Celestia after serious hurricanes in decades past, possibly including bottles of wine and perfume from the bow.

    It wasn’t until Hurricane Bill in 2009 that Mary Celestia would reveal more of its secrets. On August 22, 2009, Hurricane Bill passed 80 miles off Bermuda, with 75-mileper- hour winds that knocked out power and sent massive waves crashing into the south shore. As surges washed over the reefs and around Mary Celestia, tons of sand, close to eight feet deep on the wreck and packed into the tight spaces inside the bow, were removed, along with the 12 sandbags Rouja placed there in 2006. Revealed were a single corked and still full bottle of wine, the corner of what appeared to be a wooden case, and also the entire starboard side of the stern of the ship—something Rouja had never seen in all his years of diving the site. Rouja photographed the site, retrieved the bottle of wine for analysis, and placed fresh sandbags in the bow.

    The sand over the ship and in the bow remained stable through the relatively benign hurricane season of 2010, but the recovery of the bottle of wine lent veracity to the stories of other significant artifacts having been found in the bow. Rouja and the Historic Wrecks Authority began questioning whether preservation in situ was the best approach in this dynamic situation. In January 2011, in a lull between a series of significant winter storms, Rouja and a film crew from LookBermuda dove the Mary Celestia to collect footage of the wreck in the clear winter waters for a film they hoped to make on Bermuda’s role in the Civil War. For more information about the project and upcoming film please visit the official website:



    The ship’s toppled starboard paddlewheel was dislodged by a century and a half of storms. (Tane Casserley/NOAA)

    Mary Celestia was nearly completely covered in sand once again, the stern buried, but at the very front section of the bow it appeared that a significant amount of sand had been washed away. Inside the bow, as he peered past the deck beams and into the gloom, Rouja saw wooden planks, and in one corner, the top of a wooden crate rising out of the sand and, lying adjacent to it, another corked bottle of wine.

    Under the law, Rouja can restrict access to a wreck or keep it “open.” He decided to keep the popular Mary Celestia open, but with plastic mesh, cable ties, and the good will of the local dive community, he restricted access to the inside of the bow to keep curious, well-intentioned visitors from disturbing the exposed, fragile wood. He also reached out to colleagues around the world for help to assemble a team of archaeologists to excavate the bow in the face of continued erosion and the fear of loss of more artifacts.

    A few months later, with the blessing of the Bermuda and U.S. governments and the support of the Waitt Institute of La Jolla, California, which funded the expedition, our team assembled off Somerset, Bermuda, to start the task of digging into Mary Celestia’s bow to see what the storms had uncovered, and also what they had left behind. Rouja and I led the expedition with representatives of the Waitt Institute and NOAA as well as local volunteers. We worked for a week to excavate the forwardmost confines of the bow, an area known as the “forepeak,” a tight locker where the ship’s boatswain had kept his supplies of paint, tar, spare rigging, and tools.

    As we hand-fanned and brushed the sand and silt into the path of our air lift so that it could be suctioned away, we gradually revealed the wellpreserved remains of the boatswain’s locker, with wooden decking, paneling, shelves, and a secret stash of contraband. These brought to life the events of 147 years ago, when Mary Celestia and its crew were still running the Union blockade with illicit goods and likely making a lot of money doing so. It was also clear, as we moved deeper into the sediment, that the position of the boxes and artifacts we were uncovering offered dramatic physical proof ofMary Celestia’s last moments of life as the steamer slipped beneath the waves and hit bottom.

    The area we were working in is small— the bow is 28 feet long and tapers inside from 10 to two feet. After mapping and photographing the interior, we started our excavation, and soon revealed the top of the wooden crate Rouja had reburied in January. I was hopeful, as was Rouja, that we would find more than an empty box. Our hopes were realized when the outline of four bottles emerged from the sand. They were still tightly packed in their crate, which we soon realized was lying on its side, wedged against a collapsed shelf with a large oval tin basin lying atop it. Over the next week, as we cleared the site of the four feet of sand that covered an area of only six by five feet, we found more than the wine and the tin basin. A small box, its lid gone, lay on its side on the deck inside the bow. Close to it, a small bottle emerged. It was sealed with a glass stopper and filled with a clear liquid. Embossed with the legend “Piesse & Lubin, London,” it was perfume from a now defunct house at No. 2 Bond Street that specialized in floral scents in the mid-nineteenth century. Other bottles had probably been inside the crate, but now it was empty. From this and the wine crate, the top of which was missing most of its planks when we found it, we saw that we were not the first to enter this area. The sea had not pulled off box and crate tops and plucked out intact bottles. Human hands had.



    A still-sealed bottle holds an as-yet-unidentified perfume. (Tane Casserley/NOAA)

    At the forward end of the bow, wedged against a wooden bulkhead, we found another sealed wine bottle. I saw a green shape lying near it, which, as I brushed the silt away, seemed to be yet another. This one, however, was clear glass, with a narrow neck, and was filled with a yellow-green liquid and corked. It was embossed “Murray & Lanman, No. 69 Water Street, New York, FLORIDA WATER.” That venerable firm, founded in 1808, remains in business, although now relocated to New Jersey. Its original 1808 formula for this citrus cologne was enjoyed in 1864 and can still be appreciated today. I know—I bought a case upon my return from the project and splash some on as a bracing aftershave, with a nice sense of history thrown in. Many of my colleagues have excavated Murray & Lanman’s bottles from digs in the U.S., the Caribbean, and Australia, but no one to our knowledge has discovered a vintage sample still inside the bottle. Ours dates to no later than 1864.

    The excavation also revealed a wooden hairbrush, three pairs of leather shoes, and a wooden last, the form for making a shoe. Shoemakers were a rare breed in the Confederacy, and the shoes and the last were highly valued commodities behind the blockade.

    With these finds nestled in the peak of the bow, I was bemused to think that this was a secret stash of contraband hidden in the working area where the boatswain stored his spare gear and tools. We also found, among them the basin, fragments of what appeared to be paint cans with paint adhering to the corroded metal, a coil of rope, and one more amazing and exciting artifact—a spare chip log. This wooden reel with free-spinning handles was wound with a measured line and was used to determine a ship’s speed. The measured line (with a small, flat wooden board attached to the end) was thrown overboard at the stern of the ship and allowed to run out as it was timed by a small sandglass. Knots were tied along the length of the line at set distances that corresponded to nautical miles. The number of knots that slipped through the boatswain’s hand in 28 seconds indicated the ship’s speed; to this day, we still calculate how fast a ship is going in “knots.” This is, as far as we know, the first time this type of artifact has been recovered from a shipwreck excavation.

    We completed our dives having excavated this part of the bow down to the well-preserved wooden deck, bulkheads, collapsed shelves, and a fallen door. The wood was intact but fragile, and as we carefully probed it, we saw that years of immersion had left it with the structural integrity of wet cardboard. There was no compelling need to recover it since we were, again, filling the area with sandbags and pumping sand back into the narrow space to seal in and preserve the wood in place. We do worry about others coming after us, especially as a series of comments by bloggers have noted that, despite the law, they have learned in Bermuda to dive alone and not tell anyone what they find. But the Mary Celestia is well-monitored and the site and the sand are deep. And Rouja is hopeful that older members of the Bermuda diving community may ultimately come forward with their finds from years past. I’m simply grateful that previous hurricanes and others’ digging did not go deeper and destroy the fragile chip log or some of the other evidence. There is a special satisfaction in knowing that in this case the recovery has been fully documented both archaeologically and on film.



    This wooden last perfectly fits a pair of leather shoes excavated with it. (Tane Casserley/NOAA)What do we know, other than basics of manufacture and use, about what was found stashed in the boatswain’s locker of Mary Celestia? We know for sure that it was contraband, subject to seizure not only by the U.S. Navy if they captured Mary Celestia as she tried to run the blockade, but also by the Confederacy.

    Who hid it in the bow? A likely suspect might be the boatswain, for this locker was his private domain on the ship. But it may also have been the cook who ran below to get something he prized as Mary Celestiasank, losing his life in the process. The amount of contraband is small. This suggests that the contents of the locker were not an “official” stash condoned by the owner or the master, but rather a private one. The wine in the crate, currently undergoing analysis, was not originally packed in it, nor apparently are the liquid contents original. The bottles were recycled, with the chipped edge of one showing it had been used more than once.

    What we suspect is that a member of the crew filled twelve bottles from a barrel, packed them in a used wine crate, and stowed them along with the cologne and perfume, and perhaps the shoes, in a spot that neither the owner nor the captain would have been likely to inspect. Once in Wilmington, a handsome profit could be turned. Or perhaps the goods were not for sale, but for private use, for family members back at home.

    What strikes me as an archaeologist is that the items in the bow that we excavated provide more than data. They are a tangible link to the human behaviors of Mary Celestia’s crew, an intimate window into a human past often overshadowed by the big names and big events of written history. Something compellingly human, and timeless, has come to us from the long-submerged Mary Celestia.

    James P. Delgado is the Director of Maritime Heritage for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.

    For more information about the project and upcoming film please visit the official website:



    Civil War-era Wine, Cologne Found | National Geographic

    By Willie Drye

    Shipwreck picture: an archaeologist recovering a paint can in the Civil War-era Mary Celestia shipwreck off Bermuda

    Sunken Treasure?

    Photograph by Tane Casserley, NOAA

    Off Bermuda, archaeologist Jim Delgado examines fragments of a paint can found in the wreck of the paddle wheel steamer Mary Celestia, a Civil War-era blockade runner that sank 147 years ago.

    After storms this past winter had swept silt from the wreck, a Bermudan government expedition discovered newly exposed artifacts, including fragrance bottles and unopened—but strong-smelling—wine.

    On September 6, 1864, pilot John Virgin was at the helm as the Mary Celestialeft the harbor at Southampton, Bermuda, which was then, as now, a British territory. The Civil War was in its third year, and the fast vessel—bound for Wilmington, North Carolina—was loaded with rifles, ammunition, and other supplies desperately needed by the Confederate States.

    Virgin raced the roughly 255-foot-long (68-meter-long) Mary Celestia toward the open Atlantic, only to hit rocks and reefs. Within minutes the Mary Celestia and its cargo were on the bottom of the ocean.

    Salvagers quickly recovered the war supplies from the smashed ship, but the bow, or front, of the wreck was soon covered with silt and lay undisturbed, some 60 feet (18 meters) down,  until the recent tempests.

    (Read the official blog of the Mary Celestia project.)


    Shipwreck picture: crate of wine found in the Civil War-era Mary Celestia shipwreck off Bermuda

    Aged to Perfection

    Photograph by Tane Casserley, NOAA

    Archaeologists examining the wreck of the Mary Celestia found a crate containing four corked bottles of wine (pictured) "standing lined up in their wooden crate as if they were waiting for their owner to return," Philippe Rouja, Bermuda's custodian of historic wrecks, said in a statement. Packed with straw, the crate had been stashed in a crew member's locker in the bow.

    The wine is currently being analyzed in Bermuda, but archaeologist and team member Dominique Rissolo said it's probably a sweet, white wine, perhaps a fortified wine like Madeira.

    The wine could be smelled through the bottle's cork, and it had "a pretty strong odor, said Rissolo, of the Waitt Institute, which, along with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), assisted the Bermuda Department of Conservation Services in the recovery of the newly revealed atifacts.


    Cologne picture: bottle found in the Civil War-era Mary Celestia wreck off Bermuda

    Civil War-Era Scent

    Photograph by Tane Casserley, NOAA

    NOAA archaeologist Wayne Lusardi measures a 19th-century cologne bottle found in the Mary Celestia wreck. The bottle contains Florida Water, a citrus-scented cologne still made today. The cologne was found in the Mary Celestia's hold, along with the four bottles of wine, a perfume bottle, a hairbrush, and some shoes.

    Delgado, also of NOAA, said the discovery of these personal items is "evocative of the human side" of the Civil War. "We think of this as a big picture, and keep forgetting that this is the story of people," Delgado said.

    "What I gained was a very intimate reminder of the human side."


    Shipwreck picture: an archaeologist measuring a tin basin found near the Civil War-era Mary Celestia off Bermuda

    Uncovering History

    Photograph by Tane Casserley, NOAA

    To the right of a large lump of coal, Delgado measures a tin basin found in theMary Celestia shipwreck.

    There were strong Confederate sympathies in Bermuda during the Civil War—so strong that U.S. consul Charles Allen couldn't fly the Stars and Stripes to celebrate the Fourth of July, because someone had cut down the flagpole, Delgado said.

    After the sinking of the Mary Celestia, rumors circulated that Allen had paid John Virgin, the Bermudan pilot responsible for guiding the ship out of harbor, to drive the ship onto the rocks.

    Allen never denied the bribery charge, and he wrote to his superiors in Washington, D.C., only that there was no evidence to connect him to such a plot, NOAA's Delgado said.


    Shipwreck picture: a paddle wheel and ship machinery of the Civil War-era Mary Celestia off Bermuda

    All That Remains

    Photograph by Tane Casserley, NOAA

    A paddle wheel and mechanical remains are most of what's left of the Mary Celestia after about 150 years underwater.

    Soon after the ship had wrecked in 1864, salvage divers pulled away the ship's sides to recover its cargo of rifles, munitions, and canned meat intended for the Confederate port of Wilmington, North Carolina.


    Photograph by Chris Burville, LookBermuda


    Mary Celestia and Her Charleston Connections | Charleston Mercury

    By Brandy Culp and Peg Eastman Published:Tuesday, July 26, 2011 7:30 PM EDT

    Already one of Bermuda’s most well-documented and popular maritime attractions, the wreck of the Mary Celestia has recently reminded the international community of the shared heritage between the United States, the United Kingdom and Bermuda. For the last several weeks, a group of renowned experts have worked to uncover archaeological artifacts from her hidden bow, and with the discovery of surprising treasures, the wreck site is currently the focus of a joint preservation and research effort. This timely find has revived interest in blockade running just as citizens commemorated the sesquicentennial in the U.S.


    The sinking of the Mary Celestia was depicted in this twentieth-century painting by local artist James Polzois (oil on canvas). Courtesy of Philip Middleton. Photograph by Russell Buskirk

    Buried under the sands of an area known as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic,” the Mary Celestia, a War Between the States blockade runner, sank on September 6, 1864. The ship’s manifest indicated that they carried little more than tinned meat, but there were also items that were intended to support the war effort.

    On post-hurricane surveys in 2009 and 2010, Philippe Max Rouja, of the Bermuda Department of Conservation Services, recovered two intact, corked bottles of wine and a wooden crate. Located in the bulkhead, separate from the main cargo, the wine was most probably a crew member’s personal contraband. Although the ship’s cargo hold was salvaged at the time of the sinking and excavated on numerous subsequent occasions, the fragile bow remained undisturbed. The discovery of the wine bottles launched an extensive archaeological collaboration between Bermuda and the U.S. Rouja and Dr. James Delgado, Director of the Maritime Heritage Program for the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), are leading the site investigation, along with an international team of experts funded by the Waitt Foundation.

    Lying 55 feet beneath the sea’s surface, the bow has now been carefully cleared, and finds from the excavation have yielded leather shoes, a rope hairbrush, a wooden form for a shoe and, most importantly, five corked bottles of wine still in their wooden crate. “The ocean is a vast repository of human history; some of it is encompassed in maritime protected areas and sanctuaries,” stated Dr. Delgado. “Our team was pleased to join this project to help protect and interpret our joint heritage.”

    The artifacts were taken to the National Museum of Bermuda conservation lab and the hermetically sealed wine bottles await further analysis at UC Davis in California. This project has now shifted to the research and preservation stage. According to Dr. Delgado, “After undergoing laboratory analysis and preservation treatment, the wine and our other finds will tell their story to Bermudians and the rest of the world, thanks to modern science.”

    Almost 150 years ago, the Mary Celestia was a proud 225-foot side paddlewheel steamer built by William C. Miller & Company of Toxteth (Liverpool) for William G. Crenshaw & Company, supply agents for the Confederacy. Today, all that remains is a ghostly upright paddlewheel frame standing sentinel over wreckagethat includes a huge iron boiler and fire box, remains of the ship’s engine, the anchor and bits and pieces of the hull and stern.

    Mary Celestia is reported to have run eight times; however, the exact count is uncertain. To confuse Union spies there were aliases: Bijou, Marie Celeste and Mary Celeste. (This blockade runner is not to be confused with the mystery ship Mary Celeste, the abandoned brigantine later popularized by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.)

    During her action-packed career, Mary Celestia initially ran under the command of the “Boy Captain” Michael P. Usina, who made a total of 28 successful blockade runs, four of which were as captain of the Mary Celestia. Born in Florida, Usina moved to Savannah when he was 19 and became an apprentice bar pilot. He was promoted to command the Mary Celestia in May 1864, and at age 24 became the youngest captain in the blockade running fleet. Aboard his ship as chief engineer was John Sassard of Charleston. Usina later described him as a brave, conscientious Christian gentleman with nerves of steel.

    Mary Celestia’s first run was out of St. Georges, via Nassau to Wilmington, the last open port of the Confederacy. On the return voyage, she was spotted shortly after getting through the blockade. Poor visibility in a driving rain prevented seeing their pursuer until it was bearing down upon them. The seas were rough and the Mary Celestia was heavy laden; the larger ship came within easy gun distance. Captain Usina urged Engineer Sassard to take extreme measures to get more revolutions out of the engines and ordered 45 forward bales of cotton thrown overboard to enable her to take the heavy seas more easily. While their adversary sought to avoid the loose floating cotton, below deck Sassard put a lock on the safety valve and continued to apply steam to the boilers until the ship logged 17 miles an hour in a heavy head sea. Fortunately, the untried English boilers did not fail. After three more Bermuda-Wilmington runs, Usina and Sassard moved on to other ships.

    Another Charlestonian, Charles Francis Middleton, also served as chief engineer on the Mary Celestia. When hostilities started, he had participated in the defense of Sullivan’s Island. It is unknown when he joined Crenshaw & Company. By July, however, he was on the Mary Celestia, which had then been briefly under command of a civilian Captain Green, who departed after a “misunderstanding” with the owner. This was a mistake, for CSA Captain William G. Crenshaw was one of Virginia’s antebellum “merchant princes” who had financed his own battery and had served with bravery and distinction in the army before being tapped to secure munitions for the Confederate cause in 1862.

    Green’s replacement was Commander Arthur Sinclair (1810-1865), son of naval hero Arthur Sinclair (1780- 1831), who fought in the Barbary Pirate campaign and the War of 1812. Middleton wrote home that he found him to be a “very smart, clever gentleman” and that he preferred being on ships commanded by officers in the Confederate navy. This assessment had merit.

    Sinclair followed his father’s proud naval tradition. In 1852, he commanded the Supply on Commodore Perry’s history-making voyage to Japan; his son, another Arthur, was aboard as a midshipman and later served two years on the Confederate commerce raider Alabama, while his brother served on the Florida until he was imprisoned after its capture.

    The senior Arthur Sinclair and his two brothers all resigned their U.S. commissions and joined the Confederate Navy in 1861. He first saw action in command of the CSS Winslow at the Battle of Hatteras Inlet. As captain of the ill-fated ironclad CSS Mississippi, he ordered it burned to avoid capture after New Orleans fell in 1862. Sinclair was captain of the ironclad CSS Atlanta from February to May 1863. While posted in Richmond in 1864, he worked with marine scientists experimenting with mines and submarines. He was promoted to commander after his ship, the Squib, successfully exploded a primitive torpedo against the USS Minnesota. He became captain of the Mary Celestia in July 1864 and began an odyssey which ended in not one, but two sensational shipwrecks.

    The Sinclair-Middleton odyssey and the Mary Celestia’s ill-fated voyage will be detailed in a later issue.

    (Historical references are from The Blockade Runners by Dave Horner, “Michael Philip Usina, The Boy Captain” by Jody Owen and Middleton family papers.)

    For more information regarding the recent archaeological discoveries, visit




    Wreck film is LookBermuda's most ambitious yet | Bermuda Sun Article

    6/1/2011 9:58:00 AM
    Mysteries of the deep: The Mary-Celestia is the subject of a local film. *Photo by LookBermuda
    Mysteries of the deep: The Mary-Celestia is the subject of a local film. *Photo by LookBermuda
    The film, yet to be titled, could be aired on international networks including National Geographic. *Photo by LookBermuda
    The film, yet to be titled, could be aired on international networks including National Geographic. *Photo by LookBermuda

    A trailer for the film is available to watch on LookBermuda’s blog at Anyone who is interested in supporting this venture should contact JP Rouja directly or

    Sarah Lagan

    A film covering the excavation and recovery of artefacts from the wreck of blockade-runner the Mary-Celestia has been described as “by far our biggest project to date” by local TV production  company LookBermuda.

    J-P Rouja, the company’s director, told the Bermuda Sun that he is hoping the film will be aired on major networks including the National Geographic or PBS in the US and elsewhere internationally. He also hopes to enter the film, which will be produced in high definition to international broadcast standards, into major film festivals.

    LookBermuda has been given permission to embed its film crew with the recovery team in the excavation of the South Shore wreck that sunk during the American Civil War under mysterious circumstances. 

    In January, Philippe Max Rouja, custodian of historic wrecks for the Department of Conservation Services and JP’s brother, discovered a preserved, corked wine bottle and a wooden crate at the bow of the ship.

    The fact that the wine was found in the bulkhead, separate from the main cargo, suggests that it was contraband. It is hoped that more wine and possible other items of contraband might shed a light on the role the ship, destined for the confederate south, played in the Civil War.

    It is hoped that the excavation will dredge up new evidence that may help to shed light on the theories about who might have wanted to sink the Mary-Celestia.

    “The timing is perfect for the US audiences as the Civil War 150 year anniversary extends over the next few years and our film is exploring a part of the Civil War history (Bermuda based blockade runners) that has yet to be covered in detail on Network TV,” said JP.

    “Additionally the recovery of Civil War era wine will be of huge interest, in the past few months there have been quite a few wine and champagne recoveries from other shipwrecks that have been very highly publicised.

    “This project leverages all of LookBermuda’s strengths. On one side we produce tourism focused content for the industry and LookTV, and on the other side produce educational documentaries for local curriculum via our Educational Media Foundation.

    “One of our long term goals has always been to raise our game to the level of producing for Network TV, this project brings all of these elements together.”

    JP hopes that the film could also attract a high calibre of tourists to the island.

    “This film’s subject matter will target those interested in history, the civil war, shipwrecks, diving and fine wine, a demographic which tends to have disposable income and to travel.

    “Combined with the fact that we have Bermuda as the backdrop  allows us to showcase the island in the best possible light aesthetically, environmentally, historically and culturally, which should produce tremendous tourism marketing benefits for the island.”

    Philippe Max Rouja initiated the rescue marine archaeology project after he recovered an in-tact bottle of wine during post hurricane surveys in January 2011.

    He will lead the excavation with Dr James Delgado, the director of the Maritime Heritage Program for the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who has participated in over 100 shipwreck expeditions around the world. For five years he hosted the Sea Hunters series on the National Geographic and History Channels.

    The hour-long film will include the actual footage of Philppe unearthing the bottle from the sand.

    Over the years, storms had resulted in the denser sand being slowly washed away exposing more and more of the buried artefacts. Future storms could put the artefacts at risk and leave the mystery of the sinking unsolved forever.

    It is this danger that spurred the government to join forces with NOAA to recover the artefacts from the bulkhead of the bow. The main cargo holds were salvaged at the time of her sinking and subsequent occasions, the bow had remained mostly undisturbed by human hands.

    The wreck will be closed to recreational divers (except through dive shops) throughout the excavation which takes place from June 16 to 26.

    The film, yet to be titled, will air locally on LookTV channel one and will be adapted for the local curriculum through LookBermuda’s Foundation.

    It will be available online, on DVD and Blu-Ray and LookBermuda is proposing that it could also be used by the Department of Tourism to promote diving in Bermuda via their various channels.


    Newly exposed artifacts to be recovered from the Mary-Celestia | Bermuda Royal Gazette

    The bow of the Confederate paddle steamer Mary Celestia emerges from the sands off the South Shore. Conservation Services will this summer work to rescue artifacts at the diving landmark.

    By Owain Johnston-Barnes
    This summer, the Marine Heritage section of the Department of Conservation Services will work to rescue artifacts from the shipwreck of the blockade runner, the Marie Celeste.
    Recent storms have exposed more of the ship’s bow, revealing its contents while at the same time placing the artifacts at risk.
    Dr Philippe Max Rouja, Custodian of Historic Wrecks from the Department of Conservation Services, said he believes a large storm sometime in the last 20 years blew out the light, loose sand out of the bow and exposed the denser seabed material below, together with the artifacts buried inside.
    “With this protective layer gone little by little, the denser material gets washed away so that now, each subsequent time the sand is removed, in even a light storm event, more of this dense layer is removed, exposing and endangering these unexpected artifacts,” he said.
    The Marie Celeste, also known as the Mary Celestia a Confederate paddle steamer sank in 1864 in mysterious circumstances while being piloted by John Virgin. It has since become a popular landmark for divers, enjoyed by both locals and visitors. Dr Rouja said that since 2004 his department has carried out post-hurricane assessments at several wrecks around the Island.
    “I decided it was important to conduct these surveys after hearing reports from some of Bermuda’s most experienced divers and dive shops that hurricane Fabian had exposed a significant portion of the Marie Celeste, including remnants of broken artifacts, specifically in and near the bow,” he said.
    “The shipwreck of the Marie Celeste is an artifact in its own right. Unlike almost any other shipwreck in Bermuda, it speaks directly to our wider Atlantic maritime history.”
    In January, following a series of winter storms, divers discovered a well-preserved and still corked bottle of wine and the top of a wooden crate, leading many to believe that a portion of the ships Civil War era cargo, intended to be delivered to Wilmington, remains in part inside the bow.
    “We initially speculated that if she sank bow first, the wine bottles and case may have tumbled there from the general cargo are at the time of her sinking,” Dr Rouja said.
    “However, this area, though seemingly relatively open today, would have in 1864 consisted of a series of small bulkheads.
    “I think we can safely speculate that these items were hidden there quite on purpose, representing someone’s private stash of contraband.”
    The discovery of the artifacts, combined with the knowledge that even winter storms could potentially damage the site, inspired the Government to join with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Office of National Marine Sanctuaries to rescue the artifacts.
    Minister of Public Works Derrick Burgess said: “It’s great to be partnering with our American counterparts in this endeavour, and I think everyone is thrilled at the prospect of finding something new and interesting about both the shipwreck and the American Civil War.
    “If the bottle of wine happens to be full and the case is in good shape and we can identify the maker, then that will be just the icing on the cake.”
    As work is being done on the site, the wreck will be closed to recreational divers, but Andrew Pettit, Director of Conservation Services said that dive shops will be able to run specific, planned dive tours of the site.
    Mr Pettit said: “Considering this is a valuable tourism commodity, we want to be sure that all opportunities are taken advantage of to enhance and invigorate our diving and tourism product.”
    Local production company Look Bermuda has been following the process for the past several years, and will be embedded with the dive team for an upcoming film on the historic vessel.