Union blockade

Civil War history surfaces with help of Austin archaeology group

By Mark Lisheron - Statesman

The Battle of Galveston came alive for Bob Gearhart with a dive into 46 feet of visually impenetrable Texas City Channel water.

Surveying, site mapping and dredge scheduling gave way to the acrid smoke of cannon and rifle fire of a surprise attack on Jan. 1, 1863, which for a time, returned the city of Galveston to Confederate control.

In the chaos of the following morning, the USS Westfield, flagship of the Union blockade there, ran aground in 7 feet of water near Pelican Spit in Galveston Bay.

As Cmdr. William B. Renshaw prepared to destroy the Westfield rather than allow her to be captured, the side-wheel ferryboat exploded, killing Renshaw and a boat crew assisting him. What hadn't been carried off by the crew before the explosion remained deep in the Texas City Channel.

The passage is deep, but not deep enough for satisfactory international ship navigation. In 2004, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced a

$71 million partnership with the oil and refinery businesses that depend upon a navigable Texas City Channel to deepen it.

To ensure the integrity of archaeological preservation, the corps hired a nautical archaeology group from Austin headed by Gearhart, who works with PBS&J , a national engineering, environmental and construction planning company.