The Hunt for the Roanoke: Part I

Hunting for the elusive Roanoke wreck is a full-time passion for some scuba divers in Bermuda.

It was late September of 1864, and the Civil War was not going well for the South. The Northern blockade of the Southern ports captured or sank many of the Confederacy’s Naval and supply ships. In a bold move, Lieutenant John Braine of the Southern Navy boarded the Northern mail steamer Roanoke in Cuba, along with a number of confederate sailors, all in disguise. They waited until the ship had set sail for New York and then returned to their cabins. There, they changed into their Confederate Naval uniforms and reemerged to take over the ship. The takeover was bloodless, except for a ship’s carpenter, who attacked one of the Southern officers with an axe. He was shot and killed for his efforts. By all accounts, the Confederate crew treated the remaining original crew and passengers well as they took them prisoner and diverted the ship to Bermuda.

The Roanoke arrived off the east end of the island virtually out of coal, intending to release the crew and passengers. After refueling with coal and supplies, they would attempt a run through the blockade to one of the Southern ports. The then-governor of Bermuda refused the ship access to the harbor given, what he saw, as an act of piracy. As Bermuda was a British colony and thus neutral, he would not allow the vessel to refuel and re-provision. Lieutenant Braine, thusly, had charge of a ship at anchor off Bermuda with no coal for its engines. He subsequently placed all passengers, original crew and his sailors in boats and scuttled the ship so it wouldn’t fall into Northern hands.

Braine was promptly placed under arrest for piracy and tried in the magistrates’ court. The trial, by all accounts, lasted mere minutes. His commission and letter of instructions from his superiors were produced, and it was quickly determined — much to the outrage of the governor — that this was an act of war, and not of piracy. Despite being officially neutral, Bermuda was quite supportive of the Confederacy, largely because locals were making a fortune by supplying war materials to the South. The governor discharged Braine, and the government eventually transported him and his crew back to the States.

For its part, the doomed Roanoke lies somewhere off the east end of Bermuda, thought to be near Five Fathoms. For reasons unknown, no one has made a real effort to find the shipwreck until the last few years. Stay tuned for Part II of our story on the hunt to find the wreck of the Roanoke.

By Mark Diel