What is under the waters of Lake Maurepas?

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, June 22, 2010

I recently wrote about the sunken ships that are buried in Lake Ponchartrain, this week I would like to give you the history on a sunken ship, called the USS Barataria that was sunk in Lake Maurepas.

It was May 1, 1863, and the ship was known as the USS Barataria. First, let me tell you a little about the USS Barataria. It was built for hauling sugar and was captured by the United States Army in New Orleans in April 1862. The ship was 125 feet long and was a paddle wheeler. Records show that the

ship was covered with one inch iron plating at a cost of $409.09. After construction, the ship was transferred to Farragut’s command on New Years Day in 1863. Rear Admiral D. G. Farragut commanded the Western Gulf blocking Squadron. The Barataria then ruled Lake Ponchartrain and Lake Maurepas and was a very important ship.

On April 7, 1863, the Barataria steamed over to Manchac and at 6 a.m. The Barataria, under orders from General Sherman and Col. Thomas Clark of the Sixth Regiment Michigan Volunteers, steamed off with Col. Clark, 2 officers and 12 enlisted men. The ship was enroute to the rebel shores of Lake Maurepas.

After eight hours or longer, cannon shots were heard from across the lake. A large red spot of fire could be seen on the water. Flames illuminated that part of the horizon, and then heavy cannon shots were heard. Now the discharges were in quick succession, and small arms fire could be heard. Two lieutenants said they thought the Barataria was in distress and took a skiff to cross the lake and get a look at what had happened.

It was now dark, and as the two lieutenants rowed off, the fire on the water burned down, and everything got very quiet. As the lieutenants continued, they could see the motion of a

light on the water approaching

them slowly. In a few minutes,

they heard the sound of oars and then saw the small boat off the Barataria loaded with its crew. The two small boats stopped in the middle of Lake Maurepas and Clark gave this account of what had taken place.

Clark said, “The Barataria had run upon a sand bar around 8:00 am and struck a sunken log, lifting

the bow two feet out of the water. The engines were immediately stopped and reversed but with no avail. The depth of the water at

this point was eight feet. The anchor was carried out in a small boat behind the ship and dropped and then the line tied off to the paddle wheel. The engines were then put in reverse trying to wind the anchor line up on the wheel and pull the ship backwards, but this would not work.

All the ammunition and cannon balls were moved to the rear of the ship, but this did not help to move the ship from the sandbar or the sunken log.

At 2 p.m., Mr. Gregory acting master’s mate and the pilot with seven men went ashore to cut trees for lifting the bow off the log. As they were returning to the ship, a small party of guerrillas fired on them and wounded one man seriously in the right arm. Clark then related that he called the gun’s crew to quarters and commenced the shelling of the woods. I ordered the forward gun to be left, and ordered the crew to use the aft one. The men kept the enemy down a little by firing through the loopholes in the iron-plated cabin. The rebels ceased firing and went off after reinforcements and artillery.

“I ordered everything that would lighten the ship be thrown overboard. The bow bronze cannon was piled and thrown overboard. We then took the other anchor line up and pulled us backwards, but again this failed. We then took and blew all of the water out of the boiler to lighten the load, but this still did not work. I consulted with the officers on board and not wanting the enemy to get control of the ship we decided to set fire to the Barataria and leave under the cover of darkness. At 6:30 p.m. all of the whiskey on board was poured all over the ship, and it was set afire. As we got into the small boat and rowed off, the enemy fired several shots at us. We stayed about 200 yards offshore, watched the ship burn to the water line and explode from the gunpowder on board. After we were sure the Barataria was gone, we started rowing for Manchac.”

The two small boats reached Manchac about 12:30 a.m. the next day. All the wounded men were treated. The man who was shot in the right arm was John A. Shaw and he had to have his arm amputated at the shoulder. The men aboard the Barataria reported that Col. Clark and the gun officer were scared. They went into the bottom part of the ship while the fighting was going on so they would be safe.

Lt. Col. Edward Bacon of the Sixth Michigan Volunteers filed charges against Col. Clark for being

intoxicated, abandoning troops in the presence of the enemy, cowardice and the burning of the Barataria. The ship was loaded with two large bronze cannons, Enfield rifles and small arms and supplies along with all the crews’ personal belongings.

The Barataria now lies under 20 feet of mud on the bottom of Lake Maurepas. I located the ship while diving some years back but did not know what it was at the time. I was told by fishermen that it was an old sawmill that stood on shore and washed into the lake over the years.

I have old bottles, rifle shots and cannon balls from the site in the Louisiana Treasures Museum and hope one day to recover more of the artifacts that are located under the mud on the bottom of Lake Maurepas. The USS Barataria shall sail no more.

Wayne Norwood is a lieutenant with the St. John the Baptist Parish Sheriff’s Department and owner and operator of the Louisiana Trreasures Museum located at 10290 Highway 22, West Pontchatoula.