Cornwallis' Sunken Fleet

A British flotilla from the Battle of Yorktown lies mired in a murky tomb beneath the tides of the York River. Underwater archaeologist John Broadwater dives down to Cornwallis’ sunken fleet and shares his finds.


Harmony Hunter: This week, we continue our conversation with John Brodwater, the underwater archaeologist who excavated a fleet of ships that sunk during the Battle of Yorktown in the York River.

When you began diving these wrecks, you chose the Betsy. Why did you choose that ship?

John Broadwater: Well it was a difficult choice, because our survey in 1978 actually turned up nine ships that we could say with certainty were part of Cornwallis’ sunken fleet. But it turns out that geology and hydrology played a role, and we got help from the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences across the river and they described the river as having changed somewhat over the last two centuries, mostly in terms of building up silt on the Gloucester side to the North and eroding the shoreline to the South.

So, just off Yorktown we were seeing erosion carrying away a lot of these ships and the evidence from the battle. But just below DeGrasse Street where the victory monument is located, there is a little swale, a little a little area where the river kind of eddies, and it builds up silt in that area. So there were three ships right in that little deposit area that had been buried quickly and had remained buried and so were much better preserved than the others.

And we did a quick check of all three and chose the one in the middle for excavation because it looked like it was relatively intact and that it that might well have quite a bit to tell us not only about what was onboard but the ship construction as well.

Harmony: And almost the entire hull was so well preserved because it sank in this bed of sort of soft muddy silt.

John: We did. As the geologists described it, you have this upper layer of silt that’s very loose and very mobile and relatively soft, and then much deeper down on most of that shore you have a harder clay-like area with some oyster shell. And so the ships that settled onto that couldn’t sink very deeply into the mud. But ours, the mud was much deeper in that area, and so the ships were able to settle deeper and so more of the hulls were protected.

It was almost like they were floating on this layer of silt completely buried. We knew that over half the hull was preserved and the wood was in such good condition it was actually hard to drive a nail into the hull to use to tie off our tape lines to do measurements and all. And the seams were caulked, and I think I can say with absolute certainty that had we been able to fully excavate the ship and had the support to do something with the hull we could’ve raised it to the surface and pumped it out and it would have floated without any difficulty.

So we were ecstatic about that kind of preservation but as it turns out that’s not the best situation. Much better you found a ship that sank and rolled over to one side. And there’s a good example of that by the way: the Mary Rose that was King Henry VIII’s warship that sank in the Solent near Portsmouth in 1545. It did exactly that, it had a sharper hull than our Betsy and so it laid over to one side.

When they recovered the hull they had one side from the keel almost up to the railing and since ships are completely symmetrical that meant that they could they could reconstruct on paper the entire ship. But poor Betsy sank exactly on an even keel. She was very flat-bottomed and so she didn’t lean over to either side. So we have the entire bottom up just above the waterline but nothing above that.

So we had to do our reconstruction without the benefit of having any of the upper works to start with. Ships from 1545 weren’t very well documented but there’s a lot more information on ship construction and even a few merchant vessels from the late 18th century, so we think our reconstruction is actually fairly accurate. But it was a lot more difficult.

Harmony: When you consider the work that you did on the Betsy and archeology in the York River, what do you think it can tell us about this moment in time in addition to the Battle of Yorktown?

John: I think they have significance on several levels, certainly as major players in the battle of Yorktown. They have evidence onboard and we’ve only begun to excavate there by the way. With nine wrecks we did partial excavation on the Cornwallis Cave wreck. We did investigation of the very minimal remains for HMS Charon that was set afire. And then we did a complete excavation of Betsy. So we’re getting glimpses through that keyhole but there’s much more of the story down there to be told.

But I think on one level, we’re seeing these ships as players in a big event. So often, if you look back through the histories that have been written about the battle of Yorktown, most of it is pictures of the gun emplacements and the earthworks and the different siege lines and it’s all about the land battle, which certainly was critical and needs to be written. But the ships are sort of a tangible reminder that this was as much a naval as a land battle and it kind of brings the bigger picture back to view where we see that all of these things had to come together.

The French ships and the British ships coming at the same time and the battle off the capes, the control of the bay. From that broader historical perspective, I think they really have kind of helped us remind people of that bigger picture. And we found such a range of materials. We found cannons and cannon carriages and we found other objects associated with war, musket parts and all we found a shoe last and we found parts of shoes that became a whole separate study of how shoes were made.

But one of the most important sets of objects we found, collections of objects, was the cooperage. We found everything from tiny little personal sized casks no longer than a foot or so, to tar buckets to some huge storage casks that we actually had to get down inside to excavate. They were maybe three feet in diameter at the base. So seeing these repairs on the barrels, there were even some places we were able to verify the rats onboard the ships had been gnawing at the barrels and had actually gnawed holes in a few of the barrels and they’d been patched with little patches of lead nailed onto the to the staves of the barrels.Then you can start to really put yourself into the scene here.

But the things we found on board then were a mixture of things that the troops brought on board and things that the civilian crew would’ve used. So being able to tell those stories is just so important because it’s so hard to really connect on a personal level with the past. So that, to me, was a major part.

I’m kind of a techno nut, too. So to me part of the thrill was finding a ship that was intact enough that we could really start to reconstruct it. For instance we, we know it was two masted because the stumps of the two masts were still in place. It was a tradition of the sea that you always put a coin in the mast step for good luck. We not only found a coin under one, but under both masts. So it kind of makes you wonder about this luck thing since the ship was sunk, but nevertheless, again just such a personal thing to find these coins and to know that somebody took the trouble to carefully place those in there before they put the masts in.

Well then we had bulkheads, we had walls running athwart ships that divided up the stern section from the midsection and from the bow, up in the bow where it was always traditional to have to boatswain stores, the tools and equipment to make the ship sail and to pump its bilges out and all, we found all those things. Some of the things that were in storage helped us recreate what the rigging would have looked like.

And so we learned a lot about the ship just as an object. Taking that and the surviving documentation from the 17th and 18th centuries as far as nautical and naval treatises and other sketches and drawings and things we were able to recreate very much of what the Betsy would have looked like.

And probably the biggest thrill for me was after many years of traveling to England and searching around and looking for evidence on these ships was to finally find documentation from the troops that were onboard. In one of their journals that indicated the names of the ships that had carried them to Yorktown. And one fit perfectly because it indicated that the Betsy was one of the three ships that brought them to Yorktown.

Harmony: John, thank you so much for being here with us today and sharing this story with us.

John: Oh, thank you.


  1. Fascinating. Love hearing about all this new information.

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