Union warship's profile rising after 146 years

John W. “Billy Ray” Morris III, an underwater archaeologist from St. Augustine, inspects the propeller from the wreckage of the U.S.S. Narcissus in near Egmont Key

By Keith Morelli - The Tampa Tribune

One hundred forty-six years ago today, a violent storm lashed the Tampa Bay area, imperiling two U.S. Navy warships — tugboats with cannons — that had seen Civil War action in the Gulf of Mexico and were headed for peacetime duty after the war ended.

One survived the storm. The other, the USS Narcissus, which had participated in the Battle of Mobile Bay, been sunk and refloated, did not. It ran aground on a shoal northwest of Egmont Key and sank in 15 feet of water after its boiler exploded. No one survived.

A plan to designate the wreck site an archaeological preserve is nearing the end of a six-year process. The preserve will be marked, and divers will be allowed to view the wreckage. Visible are the steam engine, propeller shaft and propeller, the scattered remnants of the wood-hulled tugboat and the exploded boiler.

The site is poised to become the 12th such underwater preserve in Florida and the first in the Tampa Bay area, which has two wrecks of Confederate blockade runners in the Hillsborough River.

The USS Narcissus was built in Albany, N.Y., during the Civil War. It was commissioned as a Navy fighting vessel, armed with a 20-pound Parrott gun and a single smoothbore 12-pounder.

During the Battle of Mobile Bay, the Narcissus was present when Union Adm. David G. Farragut uttered the famous words, "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead."

In 1866, the Narcissus was taken out of combat service and ordered to cruise out of the Gulf and up the East Coast to be decommissioned and sold.

She was destined to become a regular tugboat, ushering large vessels in and out of port, but the Narcissus never made it.
Taking part in the process to designate the preserve are the Florida Department of State, The Florida Aquarium and the Navy.

It is the first time the Navy, which continues to claim ownership of the vessel, has granted permission to allow one of its ships to be recognized in this manner.

"Technically," said Mike Terrell, dive training coordinator at The Florida Aquarium, who along with two other archaeologists nominated the site for designation,

"it's still a war grave because all of the men were on it when it sank.

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