Wreckage Located In The Tennessee River May Be The U.S.S. Chattanooga

Photo: Students, from left, Alexis Boydston, Sam Fuller, India Toth and Gavin Page and Assistant Professor Morgan Smith watch a sonar screen that shows ship wreckage on the bottom of the Tennessee River.

Credit for all images: Morgan Smith / UTC Chattanooga 

Published April 30, 2021 

Chattanooga, TN – A University of Tennessee at Chattanooga assistant professor and his students are 90 percent sure they have found the wreckage of the U.S.S. Chattanooga lying at the bottom of the Tennessee River. 

Chattanooga, Tennessee At Night

Morgan Smith, assistant professor in the UTC Department of Anthropology along with several of his students set out to find the Civil War-era steamship as part of the Underwater Anthropology course. 

The work was given the green light through a permit issued by the Tennessee Division of Archaeology. 

Smith said that he wasn’t sure if they would find what they were looking for or even if it was there at all, but he thinks they found it on the first try. 

On April 14th, as they piloted their boat back and forth on a section of the Tennessee River combing the muddy depths using sonar equipment loaned from ECHO81 out of Hartwell, Georgia, the sonar screen began showing dark spots on the river floor. 

“It’s called ‘Mowing the Lawn,”’ Smith said. 

The sonar displayed some large, some small, some straight-edged, some curvy patterns on the computer screen. 

A sonar image shows what may be the U.S.S. Chattanooga on the bottom of the Tennessee River. On either side of the long, dark rectangle in the middle of the screen are wooden framing and planks. The circular object in the upper righthand corner may be part of a paddlewheel. The dark rectangle is an acoustic shadow created by the sonar device.

Smith said the U.S.S. Chattanooga ship was a “Frankenstein,” made from parts scavenged from other ships, so it probably has broken apart across all the years. 

As they looked at the sonar screen, Smith pointed out a round shape stating, “That might be the paddlewheel.” 

Coming across pieces of what may be the U.S.S. Chattanooga is “exhilarating,” said Austin Averill, a senior in environmental science. 

“It was fun. It was very interesting,” India Toth, a senior with a double major in anthropology and chemistry, said after stepping off the pontoon boat onto the pier. 

Assistant Professor Morgan Smith leans in with Gavin Page, center, and Sam Fuller.

The U.S.S. Chattanoga brought supplies to the starving army of U.S. General Ulysses S. Grant outside Chattanooga in 1863.  

According to historical records, supplies had dwindled until there was only one loaf of bread left for Union soldiers. 

After the war, the ship sat on the northern side of the Tennessee River across from what is now the Tennessee Aquarium and Riverfront. Eventually, it fell apart and sank. 

“It had a big role in American history and it is unrecorded as far as archeological sites go. The state of Tennessee was not aware that this was even here before we did this survey today,” Smith told a group of students before they pulled away from the Riverfront fishing pier on a pontoon boat. 

The boat was rented through Chattanooga’s Erwine Marine using funds from a mini-grant provided by the UTC Walker Center for Teaching and Learning. 

Now that the remains of the U.S.S. Chattanooga have likely been found, the next step is to compare the sonar imagery with archival data, getting an idea of the length and width of the ship to see if they line up with what’s in the water.  

Smith stated that construction techniques used at the time of the Civil War also will be compared to the wreck for further confirmation. 

Assistant Professor Morgan Smith makes adjustments to the towfish, the device that emits sonar signals.

An initial look with sonar can find a submerged wreck without disturbing it and without investing lots of money only to find nothing. 

“It’s one of the main ways to try to find locations without actually taking all of the equipment and all the money and all the people in diving. It’s a lot more efficient,” Smith explained. 

Along with the U.S.S. Chattanooga, sonar also detected five or six other wrecks, probably barges, he said. 

Learning to read sonar is a major plus for anyone pursuing a career in anthropology, said Sam Fuller, a junior in anthropology and military science. 

“It’s one of the defining factors of the employment spectrum. Is there a diversity of skills?” he said. “If you’re studying a site that’s in the water, you need to know how.” 

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