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History is hiding beneath gulf sands

Chad Carney studied his depth recorder and noticed a slight relief in the bottom contour.

"That could be it," he said. "But it looks like it is pretty well covered up."

The wreck, resting 15 feet below the surface a few hundred yards off one of the busiest shipping channels in the United States, has been periodically covered and uncovered by passing storms since it sank on a cold January day nearly 140 years ago.

The USS Narcissus, an armed tugboat that fought in the Civil War's most famous naval engagement, the Battle of Mobile Bay, was on its way to New York to be decommissioned on Jan. 3, 1866, when it struck a sandbar about 1{ miles off Egmont Key.

"She got hit by one of those bad winter storms that we get this time of year," explained Mike Barnette, author of Shipwrecks of the Sunshine State. "The crew tried to keep it together, but then the cold seawater hit the boiler.

"The ship exploded and all 29 souls were lost," Barnette continued. "At the time, it was one of the worst single disasters in U.S. naval history."

Barnette, a founding member of the Association of Underwater Explorers, went to the wreck site on a sunny December morning in hopes of diving the 82-foot tugboat. He had hoped the series of summer tropical storms might have uncovered the tug's engine, the wreck's most prominent landmark.

"The last time anybody was on this site was in 1997," he said. "But a couple of years later, it had been completely sanded in."

Carney, an avid spearfisherman and frequent diving partner of Barnette, prides himself on his knowledge of local wrecks.

"But I would be willing to say that most people have no idea that this exists right off the Ship's Channel," he said.

As Carney and Barnette circled the rise in the sand that they thought marked the Narcissus, a fisherman heading offshore veered off course and came right up to their boat, hoping to get a new fishing spot for their GPS.

"You see what I mean," Carney said. "They have no idea what we are looking for."

The Narcissus never won any battles, or even fought to a stalemate like its contemporary, the Monitor. But it went down as one of the first casualties in the modern era of naval warfare.

At the start of the Civil War, the Confederate Navy was no match for that of the industrialized north. As a result, the rebels were forced to try to even the odds through unconventional methods such as privateers, submarines and torpedoes.

But the torpedoes in question in no way resembled those Americans have come to know through World War II submarine movies such as Run Silent, Run Deep. During the Civil War, torpedoes, dubbed "infernal machines," were actually mines.

On Dec. 12, 1862, in the Yazoo River, the USS Cairo earned its spot in history when it sank after steaming by a five-gallon jug filled with gunpowder that was detonated through a wire by a soldier hiding onshore.

Two years later, mines would play a prominent role in the Battle of Mobile Bay, where Union Adm. David G. Farragut would a utter a command that would inspire generations.

Farragut's fleet, which consisted of 14 wooden ships and four ironclad Monitor-class vessels, attempted to shut down the blockade running that had helped keep the Confederate cause alive.

The Narcissus, a 115-ton tug that had been launched in New York a year earlier, had a single engine capable of producing 14 knots. Armed with two guns, a 20-pound muzzle loader and a 12-pound smooth-bore, the tug soon joined the blockade fleet.

While the Narcissus was patrolling the waters off Mississippi, Farragut and his ships pressed the fight in Mobile Bay further east. During the battle, a Union ironclad struck a mine and sank, but Farragut told his men, "Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead."

The Confederate forces surrendered, but the waters around Mobile remained littered with mines for months.

In December 1864, the Narcissus struck a derelict mine that lifted the hull out of the water. The ship was salvaged and sent to Pensacola for repairs, and on Jan. 1, 1866, it set sail for New York to return to civilian service.

But the normally placid Gulf of Mexico can turn deadly during the winter. The Narcissus got caught by a cold front and ran aground off Egmont Key.

News of the disaster spread slowly. National newspapers made no mention of the incident until Feb. 3, when the New York Times carried the following account on Page 8:

"Nothing official has been received by the Navy-yard in relation to the United States steamer Narcissus, reported to have lost on Egmont Key, Florida. It is stated that the Narcissus was wrecked nearly a year ago in Tampa Bay. The United States tug Jessamine left Pensacola, Fla. about the same time that the Narcissus left, and it is probable that the Jessamine is the unfortunate vessel. Nothing definite is, however, known in relation to the matter."

Authorities would later learn that the vessel lost off Egmont Key was indeed the Narcissus. Federal troops from nearby Egmont Key salvaged the ship's guns, but no signs of survivors were ever found.

Graduate students from Texas A&M did some work on the Narcissus in 1999, but other than that, little true research has been done on this historic shipwreck.

"As far as we are concerned, the fact that it is covered with sand is a good thing," said Della Scott-Ireton, an underwater archaeologist with the state's Bureau of Archaeological Research. "As long as it is covered, it is protected. That is our major concern."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

THE FINAL VOYAGE OF THE U.S.S. NARCISSUS

DECEMBER 7, 1864

U.S.S Narcissus strikes a mine in Mobile Bay and sinks. Refloated and sent to Pensacola for repair.

JANUARY 1, 1866

U.S.S. Narcissus leaves Pensacola bound for New York to be decommissioned.

JANUARY 3, 1866

U.S.S. Narcissus runs aground west of Tampa Bay during storm and later explodes. 29 seaman are lost.

U.S.S. NARCISSUS

Length: 82 feet

Breadth: 19 feet

Depth: 8 feet

Overhead cylinder engine capable of 14 knots

Guns: 20-pound muzzle-loading rifle, 12-pound smoothbore gun

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