Researchers have just made a major discovery in the York River: the wreckage of a previously hidden British ship from the Revolutionary War’s last major battle.
After General Charles Cornwallis surrendered in 1781, some 26 ships were sunk or scuttled in the area now nationally recognized as the Yorktown Shipwrecks. Only about ten had been identified, until now.
The newly discovered ship has been buried by oyster shells, but last Wednesday a researcher from JRS Explorations found a metal object peeking out from the river bed that turned out to be an iron cannon. The find led the team to a wooden hull that they now believe may be the Shipwright, a British transport vessel that collided with another ship, then caught fire and sank.
The discovery is a significant step in JRS Explorations’s new effort to survey, map, and identify the rich history of the Yorktown Shipwrecks. JRS just confirmed the news to Bay Bulletin on Tuesday, asking us to share the following account of their discovery:
|The Battle of the Virginia Capes, 1781|
On June 19, 2019, researchers from JRS Explorations discovered a new shipwreck within the Yorktown Shipwrecks National Register District. The wreck appears to be an armed British transport sunk during the Siege of Yorktown in 1781.
The wreck is completely buried in oyster shells, but Bill Waldrop, an experienced volunteer member of the research team, spotted a partially-buried metal object protruding a few inches above the river bed. Upon closer examination, the object proved to be an iron cannon, almost completely covered by oyster shells. On a subsequent dive Joshua Daniel, another experienced member of the team, discovered a second, and possibly a third cannon lying nearby. He and John Broadwater, the team leader, both probed into the riverbed and located what appears to be the wooden hull of a large ship, buried from one to several feet beneath the riverbed.
|The HMS Charon merrily burns to the waterline: October 10, 1781|
The new find, located near the wreck of HMS Charon, could be the Shipwright, one of two British transport vessels that were anchored and reported to have collided with Charon and were set afire and sunk. The team recovered what appears to be a piece of charred wood that needs to be further analyzed; if verified to be a piece of timber that was charred by fire, this shipwreck would be part of that missing puzzle that has eluded researchers for nearly 238 years. Mapping and identifying this wreck will be difficult due to the deep layers of oyster shells, strong river currents, and near-zero visibility.
The shipwrecks in this historic district played an important role in the Siege of Yorktown, the last major battle of the American Revolutionary War. The battle ended on October 19, 1781 after Lord Charles Cornwallis surrendered the British army under his command. The battle was won by a combined army consisting of American Continental Army troops commanded by General George Washington, and French units commanded by Comte de Rochambeau. What many do not realize is that the battlefield in Yorktown only shares half the story, the other half remains sunken in the York River. As many as 40 or more British ships were sunk by enemy cannon fire or deliberately scuttled near shore by Cornwallis to prevent the French from landing troops on the beach behind the British position.