TOPSAIL — Just off the coast of Topsail Island, in relatively shallow water, there is a shipwreck – and maybe a lot more.
The wreck is believed by some to be the C.S.S. Phantom, a Confederate steamer, which ran aground and was later sunk on the shoals of Topsail Inlet. The vessel is only about 200 yards from shore in about 30 feet of water, yet it has remained relatively unknown.
The Phantom has become something of a fascination for Wilmington author David Stallman, who first visited Topsail from his native Ohio in 1986. Stallman said he fell in love with the island life, saying, “growing up in land-locked Ohio, that was a dream since childhood, and I almost couldn’t believe it was real.”
But Topsail’s beach town feel was appealing, Stallman also fell in love with the region’s history. He’s written detailed accounts of the island’s highly classified missile program and the WWII women pilots of nearby Camp Davis.
He’s also written briefly on the Phantom, but really he’s only gotten started, and said he plans a more in-depth piece based on his ongoing research.
But what he already knows about the Phantom is more than a little enticing.
Stallman pulled together his research over the course of many years, digging into US Naval records and historical accounts of shipbuilding during the Civil War.
According to Stallman’s research, the Phantom was custom built as a blockade runner in 1862, in Liverpool, England. Relatively small for a cargo ship, the Phantom was a 190-feet long and 266 tons. Unlike most of the paddle-wheel driven ships of the time, the Phantom had a more modern steel screw drive.
“It was much more modern than some of the other ships,” Stallman said. “It was certainly faster. It was the cigarette boat of its time.”
The Phantom was designed to pick up lead ingots – which could be made into cannon shot and bullets – from Bermuda and then slip through Union defenses on the Carolina coast and deliver them to the CSA’s Ordinance Bureau, which struggled in the later years of the war to keep Confederate troops armed.
The Phantom apparently made two very successful trips from Bermuda to Wilmington and back, before it ran into trouble.
The Phantom goes down
Stallman consulted Naval records, as well as Donald Shomette’s “Shipwrecks of the Civil War,” to piece together the Phantom’s fate.
After spending the summer in Bermuda, the Phantom set sail in the fall, stocked with ammunition material and headed to Wilmington. At dawn on Sept. 23, the U.S.S. Connecticut spotted the Phantom. The Connecticut, a 250-foot paddle-powered steamer, gave chase.
The Phantom stuck close to the shoreline, trying to avoid the Connecticut. For four hours, the Phantom was able to stay ahead, but in the rough, shallow water, the Connecticut was able to catch up.
The Phantom’s crew ran the boat aground and set it on fire, both to avoid capture and to destroy the ship’s cargo. Several days later, the Connecticut and another Union ship took target practice on the burnt hull.
The demise of the Phantom was recorded in The Wilmington Journal a week later, on Thursday, Oct. 1, 1863. A single paragraph marks the vessel’s fate: “The Confederates States steamer Phantom, from Bermuda, was chased ashore near Topsail Inlet by the blockading fleet yesterday morning. She had a valuable cargo of government stores, etc. The crew all made their escape in boats.”
But what was the “valuable cargo,” and what became of it?
Stallman tracked down the first-hand account of Harry Montgomery, one of the Phantom’s crew members. Montgomery describes the vessel’s final moments:
“She hit the shoals head on at 18 knots. It was one hell of a jolt. The crew soon had fires burning fore and aft. A direct hit from the Connecticut struck one of the Phantom’s stacks. It exploded and fragments of steel showered everywhere. All three men were knocked to the deck.”
Stallman also found Montgomery’s lament, after being ordered to deep six a strongbox full of valuables.
“Well, my man, you lust let forty-five thousand in gold slip through your bungling fingers.”
To be clear, there’s no verification of a treasure beyond Montgomery’s account. However, if Montgomery was correct, and he was talking about $45,000 in 1863 United States dollars – and not the comparatively devalued Confederate dollars – that would work out to a lot of gold.
Figuring out how much takes a little math.
From 1833 to 1918, Gold was valued by the United States Government at $18.93 per troy ounce (12 troy ounces per pound), or $227.16 per pound.
That means Montgomery’s $45,000 dollars works out to about 198 pounds of gold.
And how much is that worth?
At a very conservative market value – $1,000 per troy ounce – gold is currently worth about $12,000 per pound. That would make the Phantom’s treasure worth at least $2.4 million dollars — and potentially more. Gold recently traded as high as $1,400 per troy ounce, which would make the treasure worth closer to $3.4 million dollars.
And that’s without considering the historical value. But, at the very least, as Stallman writes, “maybe this story will excite someone about diving for it.”
Full fathom five the Phantom lies
After living on Topsail for some time, Stallman had made friends with the local diving community, and had heard rumors of a wreck, which lay under just five fathoms, or about 30 feet, of water. Stallman said at least one diver had visited the wreck repeatedly, but had been chased away by sharks.
Stallman later was able to track down an official record of the wreck, in the log books of the Underwater Archaeological Field School, a program run at the time by the North Carolina Department of Archives and History and UNC Wilmington. On July 29, 1975, Tracy McKinnion’s dive notes included a compelling case that they had found the Phantom.
Along with dive-buddy Robert Browning and two other divers, McKinnion describes looking for a wreck they had heard about. At first, there was no luck; McKinnion wrote, “We found nothing. Then we got a compass & made another bottom search…. We still found nothing,”
Then two of McKinnion’s fellow divers found the wreck. McKinnion surveyed the area and took this note:
“This site consisted mainly of two boilers one of which stood up about eight (feet). This is probably ‘The Phantom’ which sunk in this area.”
The Phantom’s fate
Stallman said he’d love to see the Phantom becomes a historical site, as the state did for the Confederate blockade runner Condor – wrecked in shallow water near Fort Fisher.
Stallman also said he hoped he could inspire intrepid divers to go explore the wreck for themselves.
For those with a taste for history, and a hearty tolerance for sharks, here are the coordinates of the wreck in Topsail Inlet, which may well be the Phantom.
North Latitude 34° 22′ 23″
West Longitude 77° 39′ 29″
(It should go without saying, but divers pursue adventure, glory and/or profit at their own risk.)
For more information about Topsail Island’s history, you can find information on David A. Stallman’s “Echoes of Topsail” here.
Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at email@example.com, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001.