First dive at newly discovered Civil War-era shipwreck site produces solid clues

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Archaeologist Greg Stratton, right, with East Carolina University grad-student Hoyt Alexander, diving on the recently discovered Civil War-era shipwreck. Photo courtesy of the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.
Archaeologist Greg Stratton, right, with East Carolina University graduate student Hoyt Alexander, diving on the recently discovered Civil War-era shipwreck. Photo courtesy of the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.

State underwater archaeologists are one step closer to identifying a Civil War-era vessel recently discovered 18 feet below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean near the mouth of the Cape Fear River.

Evidence found at the site during a dive Wednesday brings archaeologists closer to their working hypothesis that the vessel is one of three blockade runners lost during the Civil War, according to Billy Ray Morris, director of the Underwater Archaeology Branch of the N.C. Office of State Archaeology. This week’s dive was the first since the vessel’s discovery almost two weeks ago, a find that has been dubbed as one of the most significant Civil War-era shipwrecks located in decades.

The large iron-hulled Civil War era steamer was discovered Feb. 27, off the cost of North Carolina near Oak Island, by researchers and archaeologists from the state’s underwater archaeology branch and the Institute of International Maritime Research. The sunken vessel was found during sonar operations near the mouth of the Cape Fear River, 27 miles downstream from Wilmington.

Poor visibility at the site Wednesday meant the state’s underwater archaeological team went down for just one dive. The divers found unsettled river currents, which impaired the visibility at the wreck site in the adjoining Atlantic Ocean. While the dive proved the waters murky, with visibility at one inch or less, Morris said the team was able to confirm some key findings discovered by February’s sonar images, including the vessel’s size and what it was missing.

“Despite that obvious handicap, we can confirm several details indicated in the sonar image,” Morris said. “The extant remains are 225 feet long, both engines and the paddlewheel are missing, and least one boiler is still in its bed, and the stern of the vessel points toward the beach.”

A detail that was not apparent on sonar, was the vessel’s framing pattern, which Morris said is a single iron frame on 18-inch centers. The evidence so far adds to his certainty of the ship’s identity as the Agnes E. Fry, one of the three blockade runners known to have been lost in the area during the Civil War. (The other two are the Spunkie and Georgianna McCaw.)

Researchers and archaeologist have discovered what is believed to be a sunken Civil War-era ship called a blockade runner. Photo courtesy of the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.
Researchers and archaeologist have discovered what is believed to be a sunken Civil War-era ship called a blockade runner. Photo courtesy of the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.

“All of this evidence, when viewed in light of the extensive historical documentation on hand, supports rather strongly our working hypothesis that this wreck is Agnes E. Fry,” Morris said.

Based off extensive historical documentation, archaeologists know the Agnes E. Fry was built at 236 feet long, Morris said. The two other blockade runners known to be in the area are documented at less than 200 feet long, and of an earlier design than the Agnes E. Fry.

Blockade runners were “the most advanced ships of their day,” Morris said. The ships were used to penetrate the wall of Union naval vessels blocking the port of Wilmington during the Civil War, which kept supplies from reaching the Confederate port and aimed to prevent the export of cotton and other marketable items by Southerners. Blockade runners operated through all the most important ports of the Confederacy, including Wilmington, which was one of the key ports for the Confederates.

“We are thrilled with this latest discovery from our maritime history,” Secretary Susan Kluttz of the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources said. “These discoveries contribute to North Carolina’s historical culture as we learn new lessons about Civil War-era trade, technology and shipboard life aboard this Scottish built blockade runner.”

The Underwater Archaeology Branch in the Office of State Archaeology is within the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. Operations such as these, are part of a major project funded by the National Park Service through the American Battlefield Protection Program.

The Civil War-era shipwreck is a singular find and noted remarkable for its state of preservation and possible wealth of artifacts it contains. Morris said research teams will continue to examine the wreck as weather conditions permit.

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