Sunday, July 3, 2022

Archaeologists discover Civil War-era ship off Cape Fear coast

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.

Underwater archaeologists say they have possibly found one of the most significant Civil War-era shipwrecks off North Carolina’s coast in decades. A state archaeological team is scheduled to get a closer look at the underwater site on Wednesday.

A large iron-hulled Civil War-era steamer was discovered on Saturday, Feb. 27, off the coast of North Carolina near Oak Island, by researchers and archaeologists from the Underwater Archaeology Branch of the North Carolina Office of State Archaeology and the Institute of International Maritime Research, according the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources (NCDNCR).

The sunken vessel was found in the Atlantic Ocean during sonar operations in that area. The wreckage is believed to be the remains of one of three Confederate blockade runners used to penetrate the wall of Union naval vessels blocking the port of Wilmington, which aimed to keep supplies from reaching the Confederacy through one of its key ports, as well as prevent the export of cotton and other marketable items by Southerners during the Civil War.

The vessel is located 27 miles downstream from Wilmington near Fort Caswell at the mouth of the Cape Fear River. It’s the first Civil War-era vessel to be discovered in the area in decades.

“A new runner is a really big deal,” Billy Ray Morris, Deputy State Archaeologist-Underwater and Director of the Underwater Archaeology Branch, said. “The state of preservation on this wreck is among the best we’ve ever had.”

The vessel is located 18 feet below the surface of the water and has been measured at 225 feet long, Morris said. Underwater archaeological crews will get a closer look at the wreckage on Wednesday, as dive teams get a closer look at the vessel for the first time.

Researchers will continue to work to positively identify the vessel, Morris said. Three blockade runners are known to have been lost in the area during the Civil War: the Agnes E. Fry, Spunkie and Georgianna McCaw.

Morris said he hopes Wednesday’s finds at the site will help archaeologists gain more information about ship and its contents, to aid in a positive identification. Given as much information archaeologists have on the three runners that were lost, and based off key measurements and details to note about the ship, it could give archaeologists “a pretty good idea which ship it is,” he added.

From sonar, archaeologists have been able to determine that the lower hull of the ship is almost completely intact, Morris said. The wreckage is missing a paddle wheel and two engines, but other artifacts below the surface could give them details about what the crew was carrying at the time.

Further investigations will give archaeologists “an opportunity to look at stuff that was not in the written record,” Morris said. The wreckage could give researchers a chance to study what was left on board, some of which could give them a look into the lives of the crew based off any personal items that could potentially be discovered aboard ship.

The Underwater Archaeology Branch within the Office of State Archaeology is part of the NCDNCR.

The sonar operations are part of a major project funded by the National Park Service through the American Battlefield Protection Program, according to the NCDNCR. Historical, cartographic and archaeological resources have been examined for the past two years to better understand the maritime components of the Fort Fisher campaign.

Fortifications protected both entrances to the Cape Fear River from the Atlantic and were critical in keeping open a lifeline to the Confederacy until Fort Fisher fell in January 1865.

Researchers aboard the research vessel Atlantic Surveyor recorded the complete hull of the vessel. Students from the East Carolina University Maritime Studies Program will join the team as they continue gathering data on the new site as the weather permits.

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