By George Schwarz, Ph.D, Underwater Archaeology Branch, Naval History and Heritage Command
The Naval History and Heritage Command’s (NHHC) Underwater Archaeology Branch (UAB) returned to Rhode Island this week in order to recover a cannon from the suspected wreck site of the 14-gun naval schooner Revenge, which struck a reef and sank off Watch Hill in 1811.
Captained by then-Lt. Oliver Hazard Perry, on Jan. 9, 1811, she encountered thick fog and heavy swells while returning to port and the pilot was unsuccessful in avoiding the reef. After running aground, Perry ordered his men to jettison the masts, anchor, and eight of the ship’s 14 guns in an attempt to lighten the vessel and free her from the reef. A portion of Revenge consisting of the deck and bulwarks, however, floated off the reef after the vessel bilged in two places. The combination of high wave energy, shallow waters, and the rocky reef upon which Revenge was temporarily stranded led to the hull’s rapid deterioration. Two of the guns and a good portion of the ship’s ballast were later recovered. Perry requested an investigation into the wreck after the event, and was quickly cleared of all charges. Eventually, he was given command of the Lake Erie squadron which ultimately led to his victory at the Battle of Lake Erie on Sept. 10, 1813.
In January of 2011, two centuries after the incident off of Watch Hill, UAB was contacted by Charlie Buffum, Craig Harger, and Mike Fournier, who believed they had located the remains of Revenge in 2005. The site included cannon, canister shot, ballast, an anchor and other concreted artifacts. The following year, along with Buffum and Harger, UAB and Naval Undersea Warfare Center in Newport partnered with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution to gather side scan sonar data over the wreck site using an autonomous underwater vehicle. In 2015, UAB conducted a magnetometer survey with Buffum to further define the extents of the site. Additional archival research was also conducted to identify other potential wrecks in the vicinity, since over the past 200 years scores of other vessels clipped the reef or ran aground in the same manner as Revenge.
This week our command partnered with divers from the Naval Undersea Warfare Center and Explosive Ordnance Disposal Mobile Unit 12 Detachment Newport, Rhode Island, to document the provenience of the cannon and recover a gun for conservation, analysis, and eventual public display. It is hoped that the cannon, believed to be a six-pounder, will provide more information on the wreck site. Two days in the water allowed for underwater mapping of the guns and some of the nearby associated artifacts, and safe recovery of the encrusted six-pounder. The Dodson Boatyard in Stonington, Connecticut, graciously assisted with the movement of the gun from the Navy boat to the truck on which it was transported to the Washington Navy Yard the following day. The gun arrived at the NHHC Archaeology and Conservation Laboratory on 26 May, and is now in the initial conservation process, undergoing documentation and desalination.
As the remains of a U.S. naval vessel, the wreck site is protected from unauthorized disturbance under the Sunken Military Craft Act. The U.S. Navy plans to return to the wreck to continue archaeological investigations and site documentation, working with local partners as well as naval commands to further illuminate the story of Perry’s Revenge.
For more information on the Underwater Archaeology Branch, visit here.