The tinclad USS Key West, left of the ironclad in this 1863 scene, was one of several Union vessels lost in 1864 during the Battle of Johnsonville. (Naval History and Heritage Command)
A southeastern inland state, Tennessee’s submerged land consists primarily of rivers and lakes of which more than 30 are reservoirs operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority. Major rivers include the Cumberland, the Mississippi, and the Tennessee rivers and their many tributaries. Major artificial lakes include the Cherokee, the Chickamauga, the Kentucky, the Norris, and Tims Ford lakes. About 2% of the state (926 square miles) is covered by water.
What is Tennessee’s maritime heritage?
The rivers of Tennessee have been used as transportation corridors for more than 10,000 years. Early fur traders shipped skins and pelts down the Mississippi River to New Orleans, and pioneers to Nashville came via the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers. Farmers and merchants relied on the rivers to transport crops and goods to market, and river ports and shipyards sprang up in places like Carthage, Cerro Gordo, Chattanooga, Clarksville, Dover, Johnsonville, Knoxville, Memphis, and Nashville.
Tennessee’s rivers played a major role during the American Civil War with Confederate and Union forces each vying for control of the waterways. Troops and material often were transported by river, and major naval action occurred at the Battle of Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River, the battles of Fort Henry and Johnsonville on the Tennessee River, and the battles of Memphis and Fort Pillow on the Mississippi River.
What sites are underwater?
Given the number of artificial lakes in Tennessee, there are many underwater archeological sites. This is because when reservoirs are created, they inundate prehistoric, historic, and modern sites, buildings, and structures in the reservoir pool. This happened at Kentucky Dam, for example, which caused farms, grave sites, homes, railroads, roads, and towns like Johnsonville to be relocated.
Remnants of submerged sites, buildings, and structures lie at the bottom of Kentucky Lake for recreational divers to see while other remnants are buried beneath lake sediments or have been destroyed by wave action. The remains of U.S. Navy tinclads, transports, and barges that were lost in 1864 during the Battle of Johnsonville are at the bottom of Kentucky Lake, and the focus of archeological study under permits issued by the state and the Naval History and Heritage Command.
The overloaded steamboat Sultana on the Mississippi River the day before exploding and sinking, taking the lives of more than 1,100 Union soldiers. (Library of Congress)
Sites at the bottom of rivers become land sites when river channels change and get filled-in. In Tennessee, this happened with the paddlewheel steamboat Sultana. In 1865, just days after the end of the American Civil War and the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, the Sultana exploded and sank in the Mississippi River near Memphis. Built to carry 376 people, the Sultana was overloaded with Union soldiers going home after release from Confederate prison camps. Accounts vary on the cause of the explosion and the extent of casualties but agree this is the greatest maritime disaster in United States history. In 1982, the remains of the Sultana were discovered in an old filled-in river channel near Memphis on the Arkansas side.
Who takes care of Tennessee's underwater archeological sites?
The Division of Archaeology in the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation is responsible for prehistoric and historic archeological sites, including submerged sites, on lands owned or controlled by the state. Among other things, the Division is charged with developing management strategies for the preservation and conservation of shipwrecks, recognizing important events and geographic locations in the history and development of river navigation, and conducting research on shipwrecks. The Tennessee Archaeology Advisory Council advises the State Archaeologist and the Commissioner of Environment and Conservation on policy matters relating to the Division.
What permits do I need to study shipwrecks?
You need a permit from the State Archaeologist to conduct archeological survey, testing, and recovery work on state-owned or state-managed lands. Work must be done by professional archeologists meeting minimum qualifications and standards, and final reports must meet minimum standards and guidelines. All recovered artifacts must be turned over to the Division of Archaeology at the conclusion of the work. The State Archaeologist has discretionary control over the issuance of permits and contracts for archeological exploration and excavation.
What laws concern underwater archeology in Tennessee?
State laws about archeology are codified at Tennessee Code Annotated §11-6-101, et seq. The section about abandoned shipwrecks begins at §11-6-121, et seq.