Shipwreck Archaeology

Underwater archaeologist John Broadwater and his team dove down to a sunken fleet of ships from the Battle of Yorktown.


Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast. I’m Harmony Hunter. My guest today is John Broadwater, who is the chief archaeologist at the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries with NOAA. John, thank you for being here today.

John Broadwater: Oh, it’s my pleasure.

Harmony: I hardly know where to start, but you are an underwater archaeologist, and I think few people can claim to have been as close to an artifact from the battle of Yorktown as you have been. You’ve had your hands on a ship which sank during that battle.

John: Yes, and it’s really exciting for me. Underwater archeology is such a rare little sub-discipline of archaeology, but we really do get a chance to see some types of artifacts that don’t generally survive on terrestrial sites. As a result, one of the Colonial Williamsburg archaeologists once referred to us as “our submersible colleagues.” So, underwater archaeology we really do try to apply the same principles and techniques of archaeology, it’s just that our sites happen to be underwater.

Harmony: We should say the story is, and why we’re interested here at Colonial Williamsburg in your particular branch of archaeology, is that up at Yorktown there are a whole bunch of 18th century ships underwater. How did they come to be there?

John: It was all a part of the American Revolution so, it does tie in with Colonial Williamsburg quite closely. General Clinton, who was in charge of all British forces in America at the time, whose headquarters was up in New York, he ordered Cornwallis to move up into the Chesapeake region and they were going to, they were going to try to ride out the winter of 1781-82 in the Chesapeake region because it would be a good ice free port.

When Cornwallis got here in July of 1781, there were opportunities to establish his headquarters down in the Norfolk region but he eventually chose Yorktown because some of his criteria included to find an area that could be easily defended but that had direct sea access for the ships and consequently had deep water for an anchorage. As you know, Hampton Roads is pretty shallow in a lot of places and it turned out Yorktown was almost the ideal place.

The constriction between Yorktown and Gloucester Point made it easy for them to set up cannons on both sides of the river so they could control passage up and down the river. The York River around Yorktown is one of the deepest natural river channels. It never has to be dredged, it maintains its own depth there around Yorktown of around 100 feet out in the deepest part of the channel. So, that’s how they came to be there.

Harmony: The siege of Yorktown ends up being the last major battle of the American Revolution. It’s the deciding battle. Cornwallis is cornered in there but he doesn’t give up.

John: It’s kind of fun to step away from the battle a step or two and just look at this whole scene. Let’s try Cornwallis’ point of view. He’s there on the bluffs at Yorktown. It’s a beautiful, easily-defended harbor and yet now all of a sudden these very large French warships are challenging. They’re visible, I mean they’re sitting there literally within sight of Cornwallis and his troops.

Now he realizes that instead of having a safe encampment that can be defended against any possible attack from land, he’s got to defend his backdoor as well because his warships are very small. They’re no match at all for the large ships that the French brought in. The rest of his ships are transports, they’re not warships. So, he he’s got a second front now to where he’s being challenged actively. And he doesn’t realize yet that this huge siege that Washington is planning with the land troops is really in effect.

So, what he does is take some of his merchant ships and probably he would have chosen ones that had mostly been off loaded, where they’ve taken the supplies and cargo out, he lined them up in shallow water right along what’s now the public beach at Yorktown, and purposely sank them. He scuttled them and formed a line that was called “the sinking line” in one of the logbooks.

It was just a line of ships that were sunk basically end to end, and the idea was that these ships whose masts were still sticking out of the water and some the decks were just awash, so they could actually station troops on these ships’ decks, but it was going to be a very effective obstacle against any sort of amphibious landing by French troops.

So now he thinks he’s protected. But on the night of October 10th, the French and American forces have moved into the area and set up their initial cannon emplacements and they start firing on Cornwallis’ position. Interestingly for the naval aspects of this whole thing, the first targets were not Cornwallis’ troops who were still very actively digging in along the shore, but the ships out in the river.

And unfortunately for Cornwallis, one of the first causalities of the siege of Yorktown was his largest warship: the HMS Charon. The French were using a tactic that was fairly common, but very devious and not so nice. The French had little portable ovens that they could heat the cannon balls until they were red hot and firing those at a ship that’s covered with tar and rigging and sails, and are just bombs waiting to go off.

This was a very effective technique. Sure enough, they landed several of these red hot cannon balls on the Charon, and one dropped into the sail locker forward so the ship went up in flames. It was described by a local resident in Yorktown as a magnificent conflagration. It could’ve only been a really bad omen for Cornwallis and the troops.

On October 19th, the British formally lay down arms and that had such an impact back in England, the reverberations from the loss at Yorktown were so widespread that it basically ended the war. It was a couple more years before the formal Treaty of Paris was signed but Yorktown was, as you said, the last major battle of the Revolution.

Harmony: We have ships now at the bottom of the York River for two reasons that you’ve mentioned. The first was the sink line that you described, where the sank boats to try to make this underwater blockade. The second reason was causalities of battle -- ships that were that were sunk in the course of battle. There was a third reason that Cornwallis was sinking ships and that was because he didn’t want the Americans to be able to seize them.

John: Britain was the great sea power throughout the Atlantic and so they didn’t want any more ships falling into American hands, because they could immediately be put to good use both for transport and for warships. So he did scuttle ships at the very end before the surrender. Again, there are a lot of eyewitness accounts of these ships with just their masts and the spires sticking out of water all along the beach.

As archaeologists, we knew that this offered a great opportunity if the ships were still there. But if you read on past the battle of Yorktown you find out that one of the terms of the capitulation was that the British would give up all rights to the ships in Cornwallis’ fleet whether they were afloat or sunk. And the title to those ships would be transferred to the French in recognition of their key role in the battle.

So the French ended up with this dubious prize of mostly sunken ships. But believe it or not, they actually brought in a salvage team and salvaged and recovered and even put back into service some of the ships that had been sunk. Because remember, most weren’t really seriously damaged, they just drilled holes in the bottom basically and sank them in place.

Harmony: Other historians on this program have described shipwrecks as time capsules, because aside from their sort of romantic appeal, they preserve a singular second in time.

John: Yes you’ve described it perfectly. It’s one of the things that has made terrestrial archaeologists kind of look to underwater archaeologists for that particular value. If you think about Colonial Williamsburg, here when there’s an excavation, the archaeologists have to really be good at what they do because they’re digging down from today all the way back through coke cans and beer bottles until they get down to these earlier layers.

But with the ships, they sank on a particular point in time, a moment in history, and everything on board that ship was something that by, just by definition, was in use at that particular time. And so if, as in the case of the sunken ships at Yorktown, you can find a ship like that, you can say within a week, of exactly when it went down and therefore it truly is a time capsule.

But more important, I think, is the glimpse into the past. I think one of the true joys of being an archaeologist is holding these tangible pieces from the past. Some people probably think it’s kind of silly, but I think anybody who really loves the profession of archaeology has almost a sixth sense about these objects.

You, you just get kind of tingle when you when you get a glimpse of something that happened 200 years ago that no one else knows about. It’s been there, it’s been waiting, it’s had the story to tell for two centuries but we’re the first ones to see it.

Harmony: Our guest this week has been underwater archaeologist John Broadwater. Tune in next week to hear what John and his team found when they dove down to Cornwallis' sunken fleet.

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