The sinking of the Mary Celestia was depicted in this twentieth-century painting by local artist James Polzois (oil on canvas). Courtesy of Philip Middleton. Photograph by Russell Buskirk
Buried under the sands of an area known as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic,” the Mary Celestia, a War Between the States blockade runner, sank on September 6, 1864. The ship’s manifest indicated that they carried little more than tinned meat, but there were also items that were intended to support the war effort.
On post-hurricane surveys in 2009 and 2010, Philippe Max Rouja, of the Bermuda Department of Conservation Services, recovered two intact, corked bottles of wine and a wooden crate. Located in the bulkhead, separate from the main cargo, the wine was most probably a crew member’s personal contraband. Although the ship’s cargo hold was salvaged at the time of the sinking and excavated on numerous subsequent occasions, the fragile bow remained undisturbed. The discovery of the wine bottles launched an extensive archaeological collaboration between Bermuda and the U.S. Rouja and Dr. James Delgado, Director of the Maritime Heritage Program for the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), are leading the site investigation, along with an international team of experts funded by the Waitt Foundation.
Lying 55 feet beneath the sea’s surface, the bow has now been carefully cleared, and finds from the excavation have yielded leather shoes, a rope hairbrush, a wooden form for a shoe and, most importantly, five corked bottles of wine still in their wooden crate. “The ocean is a vast repository of human history; some of it is encompassed in maritime protected areas and sanctuaries,” stated Dr. Delgado. “Our team was pleased to join this project to help protect and interpret our joint heritage.”
The artifacts were taken to the National Museum of Bermuda conservation lab and the hermetically sealed wine bottles await further analysis at UC Davis in California. This project has now shifted to the research and preservation stage. According to Dr. Delgado, “After undergoing laboratory analysis and preservation treatment, the wine and our other finds will tell their story to Bermudians and the rest of the world, thanks to modern science.”
Almost 150 years ago, the Mary Celestia was a proud 225-foot side paddlewheel steamer built by William C. Miller & Company of Toxteth (Liverpool) for William G. Crenshaw & Company, supply agents for the Confederacy. Today, all that remains is a ghostly upright paddlewheel frame standing sentinel over wreckagethat includes a huge iron boiler and fire box, remains of the ship’s engine, the anchor and bits and pieces of the hull and stern.
Mary Celestia is reported to have run eight times; however, the exact count is uncertain. To confuse Union spies there were aliases: Bijou, Marie Celeste and Mary Celeste. (This blockade runner is not to be confused with the mystery ship Mary Celeste, the abandoned brigantine later popularized by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.)
During her action-packed career, Mary Celestia initially ran under the command of the “Boy Captain” Michael P. Usina, who made a total of 28 successful blockade runs, four of which were as captain of the Mary Celestia. Born in Florida, Usina moved to Savannah when he was 19 and became an apprentice bar pilot. He was promoted to command the Mary Celestia in May 1864, and at age 24 became the youngest captain in the blockade running fleet. Aboard his ship as chief engineer was John Sassard of Charleston. Usina later described him as a brave, conscientious Christian gentleman with nerves of steel.
Mary Celestia’s first run was out of St. Georges, via Nassau to Wilmington, the last open port of the Confederacy. On the return voyage, she was spotted shortly after getting through the blockade. Poor visibility in a driving rain prevented seeing their pursuer until it was bearing down upon them. The seas were rough and the Mary Celestia was heavy laden; the larger ship came within easy gun distance. Captain Usina urged Engineer Sassard to take extreme measures to get more revolutions out of the engines and ordered 45 forward bales of cotton thrown overboard to enable her to take the heavy seas more easily. While their adversary sought to avoid the loose floating cotton, below deck Sassard put a lock on the safety valve and continued to apply steam to the boilers until the ship logged 17 miles an hour in a heavy head sea. Fortunately, the untried English boilers did not fail. After three more Bermuda-Wilmington runs, Usina and Sassard moved on to other ships.
Another Charlestonian, Charles Francis Middleton, also served as chief engineer on the Mary Celestia. When hostilities started, he had participated in the defense of Sullivan’s Island. It is unknown when he joined Crenshaw & Company. By July, however, he was on the Mary Celestia, which had then been briefly under command of a civilian Captain Green, who departed after a “misunderstanding” with the owner. This was a mistake, for CSA Captain William G. Crenshaw was one of Virginia’s antebellum “merchant princes” who had financed his own battery and had served with bravery and distinction in the army before being tapped to secure munitions for the Confederate cause in 1862.
Green’s replacement was Commander Arthur Sinclair (1810-1865), son of naval hero Arthur Sinclair (1780- 1831), who fought in the Barbary Pirate campaign and the War of 1812. Middleton wrote home that he found him to be a “very smart, clever gentleman” and that he preferred being on ships commanded by officers in the Confederate navy. This assessment had merit.
Sinclair followed his father’s proud naval tradition. In 1852, he commanded the Supply on Commodore Perry’s history-making voyage to Japan; his son, another Arthur, was aboard as a midshipman and later served two years on the Confederate commerce raider Alabama, while his brother served on the Florida until he was imprisoned after its capture.
The senior Arthur Sinclair and his two brothers all resigned their U.S. commissions and joined the Confederate Navy in 1861. He first saw action in command of the CSS Winslow at the Battle of Hatteras Inlet. As captain of the ill-fated ironclad CSS Mississippi, he ordered it burned to avoid capture after New Orleans fell in 1862. Sinclair was captain of the ironclad CSS Atlanta from February to May 1863. While posted in Richmond in 1864, he worked with marine scientists experimenting with mines and submarines. He was promoted to commander after his ship, the Squib, successfully exploded a primitive torpedo against the USS Minnesota. He became captain of the Mary Celestia in July 1864 and began an odyssey which ended in not one, but two sensational shipwrecks.
The Sinclair-Middleton odyssey and the Mary Celestia’s ill-fated voyage will be detailed in a later issue.
(Historical references are from The Blockade Runners by Dave Horner, “Michael Philip Usina, The Boy Captain” by Jody Owen and Middleton family papers.)
For more information regarding the recent archaeological discoveries, visit www.Mary-Celestia.com