COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — A team of South Carolina archaeologists plucked three cast iron Civil War cannons from the Pee Dee River on Tuesday and marveled that 150 years in the muck hadn’t done major damage to the weapons.
“These guns are in remarkable, pristine condition,” state archaeologist Jonathan Leader said in a telephone interview after the recovery operation.
Once they were on the riverbank, Leader sprayed the weapons with water to get a closer look.
“There’s some sand stuck to them, but to our eyes, they are in brilliant, sterling condition,” Leader said.
Confederate forces had dumped the cannons in the river and set the gunboat CSS Pee Dee on fire in 1865 so it wouldn’t fall into the hands of advancing Union forces under Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman.
It took a little over an hour for a front loader’s mechanical arm to reach into the current and lift the weapons onto the riverside, one by one.
Leader said the first to be lifted from the river was the 6.4-inch Brooke rifle cannon, which weighs around 10,600 pounds. Next came the 9-inch Dahlgren smoothbore, which is thought to weigh around 9,000 pounds. Last came the 7-inch Brooke rifle, which is thought to weigh 15,000 pounds, he said.
“It all went off without a hitch,” Leader said.
The operation was the culmination of work done since 2009 by researchers from the University of South Carolina’s Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology. The operation is at the site of the Confederate Mars Bluff Navy Yard, east of Florence along the Pee Dee River.
Leader’s team of underwater archaeologists had located the weapons in 2009, but the details of the recovery operation took years to put together.
The cannons are being wrapped and trucked to the same center in North Charleston where the Confederate submarine H.L Hunley is undergoing refurbishment. Once that two-year process is complete, the cannons will be displayed in the Florence area.
State underwater archaeologist James Spirek said the cannon range in length from 9 to 12 feet.
The fact that the weapons were in fresh river water, rather than salty seawater, helped them retain markings such as serial numbers, the years they were cast and other bits of information that helped flesh out their history, he said.
Spirek said the smoothbore Dahlgren was forged in Pennsylvania in 1862. It had been aboard the Union ship USS Southfield, but the cannon was captured after a ramming by a Confederate vessel.
The other two weapons are known as Brooke rifled cannons and were forged in Selma, Alabama, in 1863, he said.
The researchers said Mars Bluff was one of about a dozen Confederate shipyards built on inland waterways so they could construct gunboats, yet be protected from the forces of the Union blockade.
“Remember, the Confederacy had no navy, so these sites are pretty rare,” Leader said.
The Confederates wanted to build vessels to try to break the Union’s blockade or build barges to fire on Union forces with artillery.
The CSS Pee Dee saw limited action and it isn’t entirely clear whether its cannon ever fired on the Union forces, he said.
The professor said the years long archaeology effort has been funded in part with a $200,000 private grant from the Drs. Bruce and Lee Foundation in Florence.