TEXAS CITY, Texas — The FBI sent an explosives expert to Texas City on Monday after U.S. Army Corps of Engineer crews dredging the Texas City Ship Channel found four cannonballs believed to be from the Civil War era. The cannonballs likely were from a ship that was a part of the Battle of Galveston that sank during an effort by Union seamen to scuttle the boat.
The cannonballs could be part of the arsenal used aboard the USS Westfield, a Civil War gunboat that was scuttled by its crew during the Battle of Galveston in 1863. In November, dredge crews found a 10,000-pound cannon from the Westfield not far from where the cannonballs were found Monday.
In 1863, the time of the Battle of Galveston, the area north of Pelican Island was only about 7 feet deep, but, after the construction of the Texas City Dike many years later, the depth grew to about 47 feet, said Bob Neyland, head of the underwater archaeology branch of the Naval History and Heritage Command, based at Washington Naval Yard in Washington, D.C.
The Westfield sank in an ill-fated attempt by Union sailors to destroy the ship so Confederate sailors wouldn’t capture it, he said. It was New Year’s Day, 1863, and Union soldiers occupied Galveston. As Confederate steamers launched an attack to regain the island, the USS Westfield, the Union’s flagship of the West Gulf Blockading Squadron, ran aground on a sandbar north of Pelican Island.
The Westfield had been built two years before as a ferry but was converted by the Navy into a gunboat. Before serving in Texas, the ship was part of the capture of New Orleans and the bombardment of Vicksburg.
During the battle, the Westfield remained grounded until the Union fleet began a hasty retreat. The ship’s captain, William Renshaw, ordered the heavily armed ship destroyed.
He poured turpentine over the deck and laid a fuse trail of powder from the magazine. But when Renshaw lit the fuse, the boat exploded prematurely. The explosion, which was said to have separated the stern from the ship, killed Renshaw and 13 of his crew.
Confederate soldiers salvaged many of the machine elements, six cannons, ordnance and thousands of pounds of iron and brass.
Special Agent David Baker, an FBI bomb technician, was called to the site to make sure the cannonballs did not pose a danger. He found the four projectiles to be inert, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spokesman Isidro Reyna said. The discovery was no surprise to David Canright, the maritime history expert for the Galveston Historical Foundation. He said there are likely a lot of artifacts buried under the silt of Galveston Bay and other waterways in the area, especially between Pelican Island and Shoals Point in Texas City because of the increase depth and strong currents.
Crews already had brought to the surface a 9-inch Dahlgren cannon. Still, there’s no way to determine just how much of the area’s Civil War history is lost to the bay, Canright said
The cannonballs were given to the U.S. Navy for preservation, Reyna said.
The dredging project in the ship channel is a $71 million project to deepen the Texas City Ship Channel to allow larger tankers to load and off load materials to and from Texas City’s oil refineries and chemical plants.
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