On the 6th of September 1864 a British-built steamer left Hamilton, the capital of Bermuda bound for Wilmington, Virginia. The manifest stated it was carrying canned-meat and general merchandise. In fact this ship, the Mary Celestia, was carrying Enfield rifles and other munitions to the ailing Confederate States of America. Whilst rounding the southern tip of the island she struck rocks and sank.
Her wreck has been of interest to divers and archeologists ever since, but recently wine enthusiasts have had also had good reason to take interest. Why? Read on.
The Mary Celestia was launched in February 1864 by William C. Miller & Sons, a shipyard in Liverpool. She was a side paddle-wheeled steamer, iron hulled, 225 feet long and 207 tonnes. It took two months to outfit her and she then set sail for Bermuda, arriving in May.
Bermuda consists of 181 islands ringed by reefs, and sits some 600 miles off the coast of North America. Spanish mariner Juan de BermudezIt discovered Bermuda in 1505. Unsurprisingly, the first settlement of Bermuda happened because of a shipwreck. Today Bermuda is famous for being part of the Bermuda Triangle, an area formed by Puerto Rico to the South and Florida to the West, which has claimed hundreds of ships and aircraft, often disappearing mysteriously without a trace.
In 1864, the American civil war was in it’s fourth year and the Confederacy of southern states was being brought to it’s knees by a Union naval blockade. Called The Anaconda Plan or Scott’s Great Snake, the blockade was proposed by Union General-in-Chief Winfield Scott, and it was working.
500 Union ships were trying to prevent supplies reaching the confederacy, covering 3,500 miles of coastline. The Union Navy would capture 1,500 ships trying to cross the blockade over the course of the war. Many of these “blockade runners” were ships commissioned by the Confederacy to bring in vital supplies, notably from Britain. The Mary Celestia was one of these ships.
Her career was brief, perhaps performing tens of journeys in the three or four months before she sank. Brief, but full of drama. Whilst being pursued by a Union blockader the captain had to throw 100 bales of cotton overboard to lighten the ship, some $100,000 in todays money. This wasn’t enough, and she only escaped her pursuer when the ship’s engineer opened the safety valves to allow the boilers to heat past safe levels so that she could generate enough steam to hit 17 knots.
However, on the of September 1864 her luck ran out. She struck rocks near the Gibb’s Point Lighthouse and sank. Her wreck is now been visited by hundreds of divers each year. She is one of Bermuda’s “top ten” diving attractions and continues to be investigated due to her historical significance within the context of the American Civil War.
Her watery grave was periodically disturbed by passing hurricanes over the next 145 years, tossing the wreck around, sometimes revealing more of the wreck, sometimes burying it in sand. In 2009 it was reported that a corked bottle of wine was visible in the bow next to a wooden case, exposed by the passing Hurricane Bill. The bottle appeared to be intact and contained a grey looking liquid.
It was not until 2011 that this case was recovered, and not until this month (6th of March) that a bottle of the “grey wine” was actually uncorked and tasted at a wine and food event in Charleston, South Carolina.
And what did it taste like?
Apparently it “smelled and tasted like crab water, gasoline, salt water, vinegar, with hints of citrus and alcohol.” So seawater then.
A crate of wine retrieved from a ship involved in a war over 150 years ago, painstakingly recovered but sadly with little of the original wine remaining. Still, a fascinating story!
Full story in The Independent.