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The Louisiana State Museum Vessel: A Historical and Archaeological Analysis of an American Civil War-Era Submersible Boat

Richard Keith Wills
Thesis: August 2000
Chair: Dr. Frederick M. Hocker
Nautical Archaeology Program

During the spring of 1992, and again in the winter of 1993, seven graduate students from Texas A&M University's Nautical Archaeology Program participated in a project to document the Louisiana State Museum Vessel, an American Civil War-era submersible boat presently residing in the collections of the Louisiana State Museum in New Orleans.

The project initially focused on providing archaeological documentation of the boat's design and construction characteristics, and on compiling some basic historical documentation regarding its known past. Since the turn of the century, this vessel has been presumed by many to be the New Orleans-built Confederate privateer Pioneer, which was scuttled at the time of the evacuation of New Orleans by Federal forces, and last reported in very close proximity to where the Louisiana State Museum Vessel was found in 1878. This was the assumption made at the time the documentation project was conducted, and based upon the information available at that time, an argument in support of this identification was published in a subsequent article summarizing the project's findings. Additional research has clearly determined that this vessel is not the Pioneer. Recent research also indicates that efforts to design, fabricate, and employ submersible vessels within the Confederate States were more widespread than conventionally believed. Furthermore, it now appears that the level of Confederate government support enjoyed by these efforts was more substantial than has traditionally been presumed.

The Louisiana State Museum Vessel constitutes the oldest extant example of an important American watercraft tradition. The goals of this thesis are to historically and archaeologically document the Louisiana State Museum Vessel, and, as it cannot presently be identified, to establish likely historical candidates for potential association with it. In this process, the boat is used as a lens through which to view the larger picture of submersible watercraft development efforts undertaken within the Confederacy, and to discuss the collective body of antebellum American experiences and technical knowledge available to the Confederate submersible boat builders. It is also used as a vantage point from which to explore the relationship between Confederate and contemporaneous Federal submersible development efforts, and to acknowledge the common postwar legacy that emerged as a result of these parallel programs.

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