Navy recovers cannon from possible Perry shipwreck off Watch Hill

The recovered cannon being prepared for transportation for the Naval History and Heritage Command Underwater Archaeology Branch conservation lab at the Washington Navy Yard on May 24, 2017. (U.S. Navy photo by Heather Brown)
The recovered cannon being prepared for transportation for the Naval History and Heritage Command Underwater Archaeology Branch conservation lab at the Washington Navy Yard on May 24, 2017. (U.S. Navy photo by Heather Brown)

Editor's note: This corrects an earlier version

Westerly — A team of a dozen Navy divers on Wednesday raised a cannon from what is thought to be the 206-year-old wreck of the USS Revenge off Watch Hill.

The wreck was discovered by Cottrell Brewing owner Charlie Buffum and his diving partner, Craig Harger, in 2005.

Buffum and Harger helped direct the divers this week to the location of the iron cannon, which lay 15 feet below the surface of Watch Hill reef. It culminated six years of work with the Naval History and Heritage Command after Buffum announced finding six cannons and an anchor in 2011.

“It was emotional for us. This has been our baby for the past 12 years now,” Buffum said. “For Craig and I to see it come up was as exciting as it gets.”

The 5-foot-long, 1,000-pound cannon was brought ashore at Dodson’s Boatyard in Stonington and then trucked back to the Archeological and Conservation Laboratory at the Washington (D.C.) Navy Yard, where it will undergo a two-year process to remove encrustation.

The USS Revenge, a 14-gun schooner, was captained by U.S. Navy Lt. Oliver Hazard Perry when it hit the reef on a foggy winter night in January of 1811 while surveying southern New England harbors, including New London. While some of the cannons were thought to have been salvaged before the vessel sank, others may have gone to the bottom.

The sinking almost ended Perry’s career. But he was cleared during a court-martial and redeemed himself soon after being sent to Lake Erie at the start of the War of 1812. It was there that he became known for some of the most famous phrases in U.S. history.

Aboard his ship, the USS Lawrence, was a battle flag bearing the now-famous saying “Don’t give up the ship.” At the beginning of the Battle of Lake Erie in September of 1813, which is seen as a turning point in the war, Perry said, “If a victory is to be gained, I will gain it.” Later, in his post-battle report to his superiors, Perry wrote another saying that would become famous: “We have met the enemy and they are ours.”

Buffum became intrigued by the sinking of the Revenge after reading Perry’s letter to his squadron commander describing the incident, including his effort to lighten the ship and escape the reef by pushing cannons overboard.

An unsuccessful effort was made to tow the ship but some of the cannons were known to have been offloaded from the deck before it broke apart.

“The whole story is a fascinating tale of courage and resolve,” Buffum said. “... I always wondered if there were still some there or had they all been salvaged? It’s a question we tried to answer.”

He and Harger found the cannons on their third dive in 2005, using an underwater metal detector. They continued to explore the wreck site since then and have been assisted by the Navy and a team from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts using an autonomous underwater vehicle equipped with sonar, video and a magnetometer in 2012.

“I had this in my head for a long time. We took a shot, went out there to look for it and found it,” said Buffum, who brewed a beer named Perry’s Revenge Ale after announcing his discovery in 2011.

Buffum said he and Harger’s role has now been to help the Navy further investigate the site. The water has notoriously bad visibility with strong currents, making it difficult to locate artifacts. But the pair have spent a dozen years now diving in the area.

Among the Navy’s array of divers this week was an explosive ordnance disposal team from Newport, R.I., which assists when unexploded artifacts are being recovered.

The cannon will first go through a gradual desalination process and then be placed in a chemical bath to remove the concretions that have built up on it over time. The process may reveal markings that could help investigators determine the foundry that cast the cannon.

George Schwarz, an underwater archeologist with the Naval History and Heritage Command, said there will be an effort to search for further documentation, such as that connected to any markings on the cannon, that can further prove the wreck is that of the Revenge.

But he said Friday morning that the Navy has a “high level of confidence” that the wreck is that of the Revenge “based on archeological and historical evidence.”

The remainder of the cannons remain on the ocean bottom and Schwarz said the Naval History and Heritage Command plans to return to the site to further map and study it. The wreck belongs to the U.S. Navy and it is illegal to disturb it in any way under federal law.

As for what will happen with the cannon once the conservation process is completed, it could be displayed at the National Museum of the U.S. Navy at the Washington Navy Yard or at one of the nine other Naval History and Heritage Command museums around the country. Two of those are the Submarine Force Museum in Groton and the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. It also could be loaned to other museums.

As for what he will look for next, Buffum said he will keep diving.

“But I don’t think we’ll ever find anything like this again,” he said.

j.wojtas@theday.com

Navy divers complete mapping of the site that may be the wreck of the early 19th-century schooner USS Revenge in the waters off Watch Hill, R.I., on May 24, 2017. Commanded by Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, the Revenge ran aground in thick fog and heavy swells on the night of Jan. 9, 1811, and subsequently sank. The area is home to a number of other vessels that shared the same fate as Revenge over the past 200 years. (U.S. Navy photo by Blair Atcheson)
Navy divers complete mapping of the site that may be the wreck of the early 19th-century schooner USS Revenge in the waters off Watch Hill, R.I., on May 24, 2017. Commanded by Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, the Revenge ran aground in thick fog and heavy swells on the night of Jan. 9, 1811, and subsequently sank. The area is home to a number of other vessels that shared the same fate as Revenge over the past 200 years. (U.S. Navy photo by Blair Atcheson)

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