Civil War Ship USS Westfield Recovered from Houston Ship Channel

Sketch and Image of the USS Westfield
Sketch and Image of the USS Westfield

A 150-year-old Civil War ship was recovered from the Houston Ship Channel’s bottom and restored in a five-year project that yielded countless artifacts dating way back into the Civil War-era.

The USS Westfield, which sank in 1863 during the Battle of Galveston, was carried up into the surface way back in 2009 – the move considered as the biggest maritime archaeological rescue project set into motion in whole Texas.

Archaeological conservators were able to find hundreds of artifacts inside the ship once it was brought up – relics that included belt buckles which belonged to the crew as well as live ammo and parts of the engine and the boiler.

But the greatest find among the ship’s antiquities is the 12-foot long cannon which, when examined, had the ability to fire projectiles over a mile and a half range.

“This thing is a beast!” declared Justin Parkoff, Westfield Project manager, pertaining to the cannon at the Texas A&M Conservation Research Lab where they’re doing the restoration.

The Dahlgreen cannon, the Star Find among the Many Relics contained in the USS Westfield
The Dahlgreen cannon, the Star Find among the Many Relics contained in the USS Westfield

They plan on putting the said cannon in display at the Texas City Museum early of 2014.

The project’s other plans include the rebuilding the Civil War ship’s engine cylinder as well as the huge reconstruction of the boiler later in 2014. According to Parkoff, the boiler will be so high it will reach the museum’s roof.

“It will be a huge attraction. So many Civil War buffs will want to come and see it, it will be dramatic,” museum curator Linda Turner puts in.

History Speaks

Destruction of the USS Westfield in the Batlle of Galveston
Destruction of the USS Westfield in the Batlle of Galveston

The SS Westfield was a converted Staten Island Ferry boat which sank on the New Year’s Day of 1863 during the ill-famed battle of Galveston where Confederate troops got hold of the island in a surprise attack executed early in the morning.

The ship got marooned and its captain, not wanting it to be completely captured, ordered for it to be blown up. Unfortunately, the charges went off before they could abandon the ship so he and 12 other crew members went down with it.

“We’re always looking for bone. Every time I find a bone I treat it with the utmost respect,” said the conservator.

His team were able to find bone fragments but he doubts if they are really from the crew; however, he has sent them away for further analysis.

Meticulous Work

Conservator Justin Parkoff at work.
Conservator Justin Parkoff at work.

Doing the project is not easy, the conservation and restoration had been a meticulous process. Hundreds of the ship’s fragments and its contents were brought up covered in marine concretion which made them look like big rocks. These rocks were then individually placed under x-ray to see what was inside.

this process had often yielded surprising finds – one piece which had the shape of a bolt was revealed as a tiny salt pot in x-ray. That said salt pot is now part of the Civil War ship’s treasured relics.

According to Parkoff:

“It’s been a very difficult process. We didn’t know what any of this was, it’s unrecognizable. How do you make sense of hundreds of bits of metal?”

They had to use light tools and chisels to get the concretion off the artifacts then subject them into numerous chemical baths to uncover the real relics inside and their role in the huge metal jigsaw that is the ship.

Parkoff added that individually, the pieces mean nothing but together, they tell a story wrought in sacrifice in the middle of the Civil War.

“Westfield’s tragic story reminds us of the sacrifices that both sides were willing to take in that war. The story of this vessel and those men that died aboard her should be honored and preserved for future generations,” he said.

Once completed, the SS Westfield exhibit will be Texas second biggest display of its kind; the French ship  La Belle recovered from Matagorda Bay holds to highest honor. The latter is also being conserved at the same place as the SS Westfield, in Texas A&M, but will eventually be moved to Austin once done.

– Chron reports

Heziel Pitogo

Heziel Pitogo is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE