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Denbigh Shipwreck Project Update

By July 30, 2018No Comments

Learn more about the latest archival research regarding Denbigh, the American Civil War blockade runner found of the coast of Texas and excavated by INA Research Associate Barto Arnold!

The most recent Denbigh Project publication was the seventh in the series and appeared in 2015. In No. 7 we highlight the archival documents from the U.S. Prize Court files, records that have proved fascinating. We have concentrated on ships related in various ways to the Denbigh story like the U.S.S. Cornubia, and the U.S.S. Gertrude, ships of the Galveston Blockading Squadron that sent boat crews to investigate and set fire to the grounded Denbigh at her demise dating to the very close of the Civil War.

Among the numerous records we present from the prize court files were depositions by participants on both the navy ships and the runners, priceless first-person accounts of the captures. There were also U.S. Treasury Dept. (U.S.T.D.) ledgers showing the prize money payouts, crew member by crew member. The giant treasury ledgers with prize money payouts were still wrapped in clear plastic cling wrap when we first looked at them several years ago. They had been transferred from the U.S.T.D. to the National Archives in Washington , D.C. and languished unexamined until called for by the Denbigh project. Exciting. Talk about stepping back into history and learning about daily life of the sailors during the Civil War!

As an interesting comparison to INA’s Denbigh research, the National Archives of the U.K. and the University of Oldenburg in Germany recently announced a major project to research and publish over 160,000 undelivered letters that they found in their country’s prize court files dating to the 17th to the 19th centuries.[1] Prize court records are a tremendous resource for researchers and for the public.

To give an idea of the scope of Denbigh research just one of the prize court files, the one documenting Cornubia’s capture by the Union Navy when she was a blockade runner, is over 800 pages long. The runner Cornubia’s case was a test case that enabled the court to define the meaning of “within signal distance.” The importance of clarifying the newly revised U.S. prize law stems for the fact that all navy ships within signal distance of the capturing blockade ships qualified to share in the prize money. The theory was that all navy ships within signal distance were available to help in the capture in case the runner fled and therefore those ships should share in the prize money. Depositions were given by about a dozen of the Union Navy’s luminaries recounting their personal experience as to what was signal distance in various circumstances and various type of day and night signals including flags, Costen night signals (lights), rockets, and the sound of guns. The courts determined that signals detectable far over the horizon such as rockets and the sound of guns did not constitute eligible signals. The form of signals that did count were estimated at as readable from 6-12 miles (at night in the case of the Cornubia).

Stay tuned for further reports of INA’s Denbigh project. We are by no means finished.