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Underwater archaeologists probe the York River for clues to the battle that won independence

Divers scour the murky bottom for the remains of British ships sunk off Virginia in 1781

Underwater archaeologist Josh Daniel holds a piece of charred wood believed to be from a sunken ship after bringing it up last week on the York River in Virginia. (Timothy C. Wright for the Washington Post)

GLOUCESTER POINT, Va. — Josh Daniel emerged from the murk of the York River clad in his scuba gear and swam toward the dive boat, holding in his hand a fragment of blackened wood as if it were a piece of sunken treasure.

“John!” he called to colleague John D. Broadwater. “Check that out. What is that? I can’t see it through my mask.”

Broadwater, a veteran underwater archaeologist, took the fragment. He examined it. He smelled it. “That definitely looks like a piece of burnt wood,” he said. “That is just awesome.”

It was a tiny but potentially important clue that Daniel had found near what appeared to be the two, maybe three, encrusted cannons that the team had discovered on the bottom earlier in the day.

And it recalled a dramatic episode here during the Revolutionary War when French gunners blasted a British warship, HMS Charon, which caught fire and drifted ablaze across the river, setting two other ships alight before all three sank.

A “splendid conflagration,” wrote an American doctor who watched at night from shore. “The ships were enwrapped in a torrent of fire” and “presented one of the most sublime and magnificent spectacles which can be imagined.”

It was all part of the climactic battle of the war, in which the young United States, with the help of the French army and navy, besieged and defeated the British at Yorktown in 1781 — and ensured American independence, which had been declared in 1776.

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And on this warm, humid day, with dolphins in the water, divers Daniel, 37, Broadwater, 75, and Bill Waldrop, 64, along with backup Mike Nusbaum, 69, were digging through the mud and oyster shells on the river bottom for remnants of the battle.

They were guided by GPS data and a crude diagram of objects on the bottom that Daniel drew in a notebook.

The nearby wreck of the Charon had been located and studied extensively years ago, but details about the other two ships are scarce, Broadwater said. The charred wood fragment, along with the newly found suspected cannon, could be from one of the others, he said.

The day — the second of a two-day dive — began with what appears to be a major discovery.

In the morning, Waldrop had gone into the water to resume a search he had started the day before. It was at a previously unexplored site that looked promising, based on an underwater survey done several weeks ago.

An orange and green buoy marked the spot.

Waldrop plunged in and dived about 23 feet. He was just starting to feel around when his knees bumped against something protruding slightly from the bottom.

“What is this?” he said he thought. “I got on it, and I’m trying to move it. It ain’t moving. … I started digging on the sides. How big is this thing?"

It felt round, like the barrel of a cannon. “I’m like, I’m not that lucky,” he said as he recounted the moment. “This is going to be a winch or something like that.”

The more he dug, the more excited he became. “This is iron, and this is big,” he said he thought.

As he felt along the length of the object, he reached what felt like the rear. He knew the rear end of old cannons had a large knob called the cascabel, used to handle the gun.

As he probed, there it was. He thought, “This is a damn cannon.”

It was a diver’s dream.

He headed for the surface and started yelling, “I found a damn cannon!” he said.

The others thought he was joking. “Stop kidding,” someone said.

He wasn’t kidding.

The suspected cannon, about seven feet long, is “almost certainly British,” Broadwater said. “It’s not big enough [to be from] a warship. It’s probably [from] one of the merchant vessels that was here. Almost all of them were armed, with anywhere from three-pounders to four- or six-pounders.”

The find was huge, he said.

“We knew that HMS Charon … was set afire by red-hot cannon balls [from] a French battery,” he said.

The Charon carried 44 guns and 300 men, although most of the crew and the guns were ashore. It was the biggest ship the British had on hand.

It was anchored off Yorktown to protect a critical British defensive position, according to historian John O. Sands.

But French soldiers had a trench nearby. They also had a special oven in which they heated cannon balls before firing them.

On Oct. 10, 1781, one of these “hot shots” lodged in the main deck of the Charon and started to smoke. The crew dislodged it, put it in a kettle and doused it with water, a British sailor recounted later.

But then a second shot landed in the ship’s room where extra sails were kept, and the vessel caught fire.

“As it started to burn, it burned through the anchor cable,” Broadwater said. The ship drifted across the river on fire. “We have eyewitnesses that said it was burning so intensely that it bumped into at least two other ships and set them afire.”

The wreck of one of those ships, possibly the 300-ton transport Shipwright, was found in 1978 near the wreck of the Charon.

“This may be the second one,” he said. “I think we can definitely say we’ve got another shipwreck. It almost has to be one of the transports."

Later in the day, another suspected cannon was located on the bottom, as well as an object that could be a third.

Broadwater said the team hopes to reassemble later this year for further dives and investigation of the site. The men have to clear away more bottom debris and see whether they can identify the “trunnions,” the shafts that protruded from the sides of such guns, as well as the muzzles, to confirm that they are indeed cannons.

“Raising small guns of this size is not difficult,” he said in an email. “But we’d have to apply for permission and we’d have to secure an agreement with someone to properly conserve it and provide long-term curation and storage.”

Broadwater, a retired chief archaeologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, first studied the York River shipwrecks in the mid-1970s. There are believed to be scores of them in the river, many scuttled by the British just off Yorktown to prevent amphibious landings. Fewer than half have been located.

Broadwater said he has never stopped researching the wrecks. He has also worked on the massive project to recover the turret of the sunken Civil War ship the USS Monitor, off North Carolina’s Cape Hatteras, in 2002. He descended to the Titanic in 2001. And he helped billionaire entrepreneur Jeff Bezos recover Apollo moon-rocket engines from the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean in 2013. (Bezos, the chief executive of Amazon, owns The Washington Post.)

Broadwater is now chief archaeologist with Yorktown-based JRS Explorations.

The siege of Yorktown in the fall of 1781 was the last major battle of the Revolutionary War.

After five years of bloody, back-and-forth combat, American and French forces trapped the British contingent in Yorktown, across the York River from Gloucester Point. The French, who had been allied with the Americans since 1778, sealed the mouth of the York River with their navy.

On Oct. 19, the British, under Lord Cornwallis, surrendered, dooming the British attempt to keep the American colonies.

Many accounts focus on the land battle at Yorktown, Broadwater said. “You only get half the story, because the other half of the battlefield is out here,” he said as he sat on the dive boat. “Without the naval aspects, the . . . siege of Yorktown could never have taken place,” he said, adding, “We’re trying to tell that part of the story.”

“Our goal is to try to actually get financial backing to do another major excavation out here,” he said. “There are several wrecks that we know of,” he added, potentially revealing “tons of artifacts and information on the battle.”

“There’s no place else to get that information,” he said.

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