Monday, December 27, 2010

USC archaeologists locate wreck of Confederate gunboat

A University of South Carolina archaeologist has found the wreck of C.S.S. Peedee, a Confederate gunboat that was destroyed by Confederate forces so it would not be captured by Union forces, in the Pee Dee River.

The discovery comes 18 months after underwater archaeologist Chris Amer confirmed the presence of two of three cannon from the gunboat in the river: a Confederate Brooke rifled cannon and a Union Dahlgren smooth-bore, 9-inch shell cannon near the Confederate Mars Bluff Navy Yard.

"This isn't a boat resting neatly on the river bottom," Amer said. "The remains are as messy as the history that put it there. Together, the wreck and cannon tell a story about the little known but very important role that inland Confederate naval yards played in the Civil War. Hidden along interior rivers, the naval yards let Confederate forces build and protect gunboats and support vessels."

Amer said that after an unsuccessful three-week search in July to determine whether the elusive third cannon was hidden under the Dahlgren or under a handful of artillery shells on the river's bottom, he returned in September to follow up on clues about the Peedee's location.

The clues included some data from downstream that he gathered in 2009 and a personal account by a man who claimed that he witnessed a salvage operation of the Peedee in 1954.

"Michael Hartley, an archaeologist in North Carolina, said he was 12 years old when he watched a group of men salvage a boiler and parts of C.S.S Peedee at Mars Bluff," said Amer. "He said the water was low and that he made a detailed map of its location."

Hartley, once on staff at USC's South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology (SCIAA), gave Amer a file that he had created on C.S.S. Peedee.

"I was able to go right to the spot," said Amer. "Hartley's account matched up with magnetic readings that I took of a 25,000-square-foot area."

In November, Amer used sonar to search for the debris and found evidence of the wreck: ripples on the sand where sediment had built up over debris, magnetic "hits" in straight lines depicting the iron bolts along bedding timbers and a tree stuck on something substantial on the river's bottom, possibly ship timbers.

"It's in pieces and buried, although I'm not sure just how deep," Amer said.

The condition of the wreck doesn't surprise him. After all, he said, the Confederate commanders set the 170-foot gunboat ablaze and blew it up in 1865 so it wouldn't fall into the hands of Gen. William T. Sherman's northward advancing Union troops.

He said in the early 1900s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers further damaged the wreck while clearing the river channel for boat traffic.

Disruptions to the wreck occurred in 1925, Amer said, when propellers were salvaged, and again in 1954, when Hartley witnessed the salvaging of two engines, a boiler, propeller shafts and a 30-foot section of the stern.

With the mystery of the wreck solved, Amer will resume efforts to locate the third cannon.

Amer said he will ask local loggers in the spring to move the logs holding the Brooke in preparation for raising the two cannon. He said he also wants to determine whether a field of logs carpeting the river bed close to where the other two cannon were found, is covering the missing cannon.

The logs are a remnant of the Mars Bluff Navy Yard, one of seven inland Confederate naval yards and the one where C.S.S. Peedee was built and later used for logging activities.

While Amer has worked to locate the cannon and gunboat, his colleague, Dr. Jon Leader, a SCIAA research associate professor, is searching for the naval yard.

Like the third cannon, the land portion of the Mars Bluff Navy Yard remains elusive.

Leader's initial search, using ground-penetrating radar and remote-sensing technologies with students from USC and East Carolina University's Program in Maritime Studies field school, uncovered early occupations by Native Americans, but no evidence of the naval yard. He said he believes it may be on adjacent property along the river, which he will investigate this spring.

The entire SCIAA project is funded in part by a $200,000 grant from the Drs. Bruce and Lee Foundation in Florence. Once the cannon are raised, plans call for them to be preserved at a conservation laboratory at Francis Marion University under Leader's supervision.

SCIAA, part of the College of Arts and Sciences, was established in 1963 as a University of South Carolina research institute and a cultural resource management agency for the state of South Carolina.

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