This book, by a widely recognized marine archeologist, includes a chronological index of more than 1,800 documented losses of vessels in the Chesapeake. The text provides details of the more noteworthy of these disasters interspersed with narratives of historic maritime operations on the Bay, not all of which involve shipwrecks.
The book opens with the discovery in 1926, in the waters off Tangier Island, of an ancient wreck, evidently that of a Spanish vessel that explored the Bay some time before the arrival of the English settlers at Jamestown. There follow generally brief sketches of maritime disasters in the Bay area during the Colonial period.
The story takes on greater interest with narratives of events during the American Revolution, beginning with the Peggy Stewart case, in which Annapolis rebels outdid their Boston brethren by destroying not only taxable British tea but also the vessel that brought it to America. In Virginia, the royal governor, Lord Dunmore, aroused the wrath of the citizenry by seizing the powder supply at Williamsburg. Rebels subsequently set fire to His Majesty's Sloop Liberty, which had carried part of the powder away--a deed that author Shomette calls "the first outright act of war."
Dunmore, fearing for his safety, fled to a British warship in the Chesapeake Bay, assembled a small fleet, declared martial law and undertook, without success, to govern Virginia from afloat. He further aroused the rebels against him by proclaiming freedom to all slaves who would join the British. Venturing ashore, he was defeated near Norfolk on the first day of 1776, whereupon he ordered his ships to bombard the city, setting it afire. By July of the same year, Dunmore's fleet, once numbering more than 90 craft, had been reduced by desertions, natural hazards and rebel action to six vessels. With this sorry remnant the ex-royal governor sailed out through the Virginia capes, never to return.
Shomette recognizes the indispensable role played by Adm. de Grasse's French fleet in winning American independence. This force of 28 ships arrived at the Chesapeake from the West Indies at the end of August 1781 and proceeded to blockade Cornwallis at Yorktown. When a British fleet of 19 ships (Shomette incorrectly says 27) arrived from New York on Sept. 5 to break the blockade, the French fleet attacked, sending the British ships reeling back to New York for repairs and reinforcements. Meanwhile, an American army under Washington and a French army under Rochambeau arrived to join troops under Lafayette, Wayne and Saint-Simon already facing Cornwallis, who was now hopelessly outnumbered. When the British fleet, repaired, reinforced, and bringing additional troops, again reached the capes of the Chesapeake, it was only to learn that Cornwallis had surrendered.
In the War of 1812, the British, based on Tangier Island, made the Chesapeake a virtual British lake. In the summer of 1814, ships of the Royal Navy chased defending American gunboats up the Patuxent River and landed several thousand British regulars on the west bank. They marched on Washington, scattering the defenders, and burned the Capitol, the White House and other public buildings.
In covering the pre-Civil War period, Shomette gives considerable space to the 1844 Peacemaker disaster, which cost lives but involved no loss of ships. "Peacemaker" was the name given by U.S. naval Capt. Robert F. Stockton to a 12-inch wrought-iron gun of his own design mounted on board the navy's first screw steam warship, Princeton, the construction of which he had supervised. During demonstration firing on the Potomac River, the Peacemaker burst, killing several spectators, including an officer, two congressmen, the secretary of the navy and the secretary of state.
The Civil War section opens with the story of how Union bluejackets and marines set fire to the Norfolk Navy Yard to keep it out of Confederate hands. They were unable, however, with the means available, to destroy the hundreds of great guns in the yard. These proved of inestimable value to the Confederates, who, soon occupying the burned-out facility, used the captured guns to arm new forts guarding the southern harbors. In the abandoned yard they also found the partly burned hull of the steam frigate Merrimack, which they converted into the ironclad Virginia.
Shomette tells how the completed Virginia, advancing from Norfolk into Hampton Roads, rammed and sank the Union sloop Cumberland and set fire to the nearby Union frigate Congress. He declines, however, to describe the battle between the Virginia and the ironclad Monitor on the ground that "it is a tale familiar to every schoolchild," an assertion that many history teachers, including this reviewer, will dispute. Following the Civil War section, the book narrates in some detail the stories of a series of more recent disasters, concluding with the 1978 ram-sinking of the Coast Guard cutter Cuyahoga by the Argentinian freighter Santa Cruz II.
"Shipwrecks on the Chesapeake" doubtless will be well-received by students and connoisseurs of maritime disasters, but it must be admitted that the potentially exciting stories are somewhat numbed by a pedestrian style, replete with cliche's. When a city grows, it does so "by leaps and bounds." A vessel is spared a "watery grave." A merchant is "blissfully unaware" that he has been "taken in, hook, line, and sinker."
The text contains quantities of names, many of them of so little importance to the story that the author, advisedly, does not list them in the index. The index, by the way, is a "lazy man's index," with too many unexplained page numbers. The entry "Chesapeake Bay," for example, which most writers would consider an unnecessary entry in this particular book, is followed by no fewer than 78 page numbers.