Friday, February 28, 2020

Forty Years Ago: Clive Cussler's Contentious Contribution

The image of the ill-fated sloop-of-war USS Cumberland looms large in the logo and front window of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum in downtown Norfolk, Virginia.  Without (M.C. Farrington)
By M.C. Farrington
HRNM Historian
Those familiar with the Hampton Roads Naval Museum (HRNM) know of the special status conferred upon the museum with regards to two famous local shipwrecks, USS Cumberland and CSS Florida–the former being the first vessel sunk by an ironclad warship, CSS Virginia, during the Battle of Hampton Roads in March 1862, and the latter being a captured Confederate commerce raider brought to Hampton Roads in November 1864 after her capture in Brazil by USS Wachusett the month before. 

A permanent exhibit devoted to the Confederate raider Florida has been a part of the museum's Civil War gallery since 2011. (M.C. Farrington)
HRNM is the only museum in the world authorized by the United States Government to hold artifacts recovered from both vessels.  Both wrecks rested close to one another on the bottom of the James River not far from Newport News Shipbuilding, which began operations over two decades after the Civil War.  There the two wrecks rested in obscurity for over a century.

That is, until one of the most famous authors in the world, Clive Cussler, set out to find them. 

Novelist and ocean adventurer Clive Cussler (9News Australia)
Cussler, the best-selling adventure novel writer who died last Monday in Arizona at the age of 88, used the proceeds from his first commercially successful book Raise the Titanic (1976) to found an organization dedicated to undertaking the types of undersea adventures he wrote about in his novels. Fittingly, the name for that organization, the National Underwater and Marine Agency (NUMA), began a fictional government organization in his novels.

Cussler and NUMA set out boldly across the Atlantic in 1977 in a quest to find the wreck of John Paul Jones' flagship Bonhomme Richard, the first in a long list of history's lost shipwrecks that they hoped to discover.  According to Cussler's obituary in The New York Times, NUMA ultimately discovered some 60 wrecks over the following decades and that "[v]aluable artifacts raised by his expeditions were given to museums or governments." Considering that the Bonhomme Richard expedition ended in failure (the ship wasn't found until 2018), perhaps Cussler's first experience with artifact giving occurred in Hampton Roads.  But what happened in 1980 when the swashbuckling exploits of Cussler's official-sounding yet private organization brought it to Hampton Roads and attracted the attention of the real by-the-book feds?  Namely, those at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum, which had opened less than a year before? 

Accounts differ.

Patricia Gleeson, the Hampton Roads Naval Museum's first registrar, and Mike Curtin, the museum's first director, stand in front of the historic Pennsylvania House, which was built for the 1907 Jamestown Exposition, after the museum's opening there in 1979.  It moved to join Nauticus, the National Maritime Center, in 1994. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
Retired Vice Admiral Bernard "Beetle" Forbes, who was tasked by the Navy to bring the museum into operation, and founding civilian Director Mike Curtin had practically just begun amassing artifacts from what was then the Naval Historical Center for the museum's collection when they caught wind of what was in the offing. 

NUMA divers had been working on what was left of the remains of CSS Virginia in the shallow waters off Craney Island at the mouth of the Elizabeth River when they decided to cross the roadstead and look for the wrecks of Cumberland and Florida.

"The Rebel Steamer 'Merrimac" running down the frigate 'Cumberland' off Newport News," an illustration of the sloop-of-war's demise after the emergence of the Confederate ironclad in Hampton Roads on March 8, 1862. (Harper's Weekly/ Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
Long-time HRNM curator Joe Judge wrote an account of the affair in the fortieth anniversary edition of our journal, The Daybook, which was published last year:
The museum’s early years coincided with important developments in the region’s underwater historic sites. In 1980, Clive Cussler, popular novelist best known for his book, Raise the Titanic, pursued a long-standing interest in the two Civil War ships whose remains lie in the James River: USS Cumberland and CSS Florida. Cussler contracted with a local archaeological firm, who in turn called on the knowledge of local watermen to help locate the ships. This knowledge, combined with a remote sensing survey, led archaeologists to the two wrecks. The recovery of numerous artifacts confirmed that these shipwrecks were most likely Cumberland and Florida.

The archaeology team transferred the artifacts to the Virginia Historic Landmarks Commission, where they quickly became a source of contention. The Navy asserted its rights to them with a frosty note from the JAG corps that stated “these vessels and related artifacts are considered the property of the United States … it is therefore requested that these artifacts be transferred to the Hampton Roads Naval Museum.” In November 1983, HRNM received the artifacts, which became a cornerstone of the collection. Director Mike Curtin summed up the swirling debate about who owned the artifacts to a newspaper reporter: “There’s a lot of ego involved.”      

"The sinking of the rebel war steamer Florida, near Fortress Monroe, Nov. 28...,"  an 1864 illustration from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
For his part, Mr. Cussler was a bit blunter and less magnanimous in his recollection of the affair during their second expedition to Hampton Roads in July 1982, recorded for posterity on the NUMA website.
A display case in the Battle of Hampton Roads section of the museum's Civil War gallery displays artifacts recovered from the sloop-of-war Cumberland, including a caliper (HR83-066-011), a gun site cover (HR83-066-004), and a sabot for one of Cumberland's rifled gun rounds (HR83-066-016). (M.C. Farrington)
In any event its can be said that, despite differing opinions and some hurt feelings, the late, legendary author helped get the HRNM collection off the ground, whether he wanted to or not.

Artifacts from the Confederate screw steamer Florida, from shoes to medicine bottles to Blakely rifle shells, line the exhibit devoted to the ship within the Hampton Roads Naval Museum's Civil War gallery. (M.C. Farrington)
When it comes to the wrecks of the Cumberland and Florida, the Hampton Roads Naval Museum's acquisition of their artifacts was obviously not the kind of ending Clive Cussler would have penned for one of his adventure stories.  Yet in reality, for nearly four decades the public has been able to see the choicest artifacts from both vessels in HRNM's Civil War Gallery in downtown Norfolk, with some of the larger pieces of the wrecks available for view by appointment at the museum's annex near its original home on Naval Station Norfolk.  
The bell of the sloop-of-war Cumberland in the Hampton Roads Naval Museum's Civil War gallery. It was found in 1981 by Underwater Archaeological Joint Ventures of Yorktown, Virginia, working under contract for NUMA. (HR83-066-22/ M.C. Farrington)
Not all of the artifacts from the Cumberland and Florida were accessioned into the HRNM collection from Clive Cussler and affiliated colleagues such as Dr. John Broadwater, then of the Virginia Historic Landmark Commission's Research Center for Archaeology. Many were confiscated later by the U.S. Department of Justice and Naval Investigative Service from looters who dredged the shipwreck sites during the late-1980s, possibly after learning of their existence and location from news stories about their discovery. That story will have to wait until another time.

Until then, suffice to say that all's well that ends well.

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