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Archaeologists find wreckage of Confederate gunboat

By the CNN Wire Staff
  • Archaeologists find wreckage of Confederate gunboat
  • They hope to raise two artillery pieces they previously found
  • C.S.S. Peedee was built at an inland navy yard in South Carolina

(CNN) -- The Ides of March was indeed a portentous day for the Confederate gunboat Peedee and its the 90-man crew, which heaved three artillery pieces overboard and torched the doomed vessel in the waning weeks of the Civil War.

The C.S.S. Peedee, built inland between Florence and Marion, South Carolina, was unable to reach the Atlantic Ocean because Union forces had taken coastal Georgetown. The crew scuttled the wooden Peedee on March 15, 1865, leaving its remains in the Pee Dee River.

In 2009, state underwater archaeologist Chris Amer confirmed the discovery of two of three cannon that were placed on the Peedee at Mars Bluff Navy Yard.

On Tuesday, Amer announced that the University of South Carolina team had located the mostly salvaged wreckage of the Peedee, which lies a few feet below the river bottom and a field of timbers.

"They are kind of like pick-up sticks," Amer said of the timbers, which may be remnants of logging operations.

Working with a $200,000 grant, the team plans to raise the two cannon -- one a smoothbore Dahlgren, the other a Brooke rifled gun -- in the spring or summer of 2011 and continue looking for the other Brooke piece and remains of the Mars Bluff Navy Yard, which Amer thinks are upstream of the wreckage. The artillery pieces were dumped about one mile from the site of the wreckage.

The researchers also want to retrieve several cannonballs for preservation at nearby Francis Marion University.

The Confederacy built inland shipbuilding operations across the South. But many of the vessels saw limited, if any, action before they were scuttled or destroyed by Union forces.

The C.S.S. Peedee was able to lob at few shells at Union forces when its steam-powered propellers churned upstream to Cheraw shortly before its demise.

"It was trapped," Amer said of the gunboat.

Built to protect the coast or patrol waterways, the Peedee and others in its class were hardly built for speed.

"They couldn't have been chasing blockade runners," said Amer.

No contemporary photographs or drawings of the vessel survive, and records disagree even on the Peedee's length. It may have been 170 feet or 150 feet long.

A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredging operation in 1906 cleared the channel and broke the Peedee up, Amer said. The propellers, which were removed in 1925, are at the Florence Museum. In 1954, salvagers got the engines, a boiler, propeller shafts and a section of the stern.

Using information from Michael Hartley, an archaeologist who witnessed the 1954 salvage when he was 12, Amer went to the spot and matched the information with magnetic readings.

"In November, Amer used sonar to search for the debris and found evidence of the wreck," the University of South Carolina said in a statement Tuesday. Amer found ripples on the sand where sediment had built up over debris and magnetic "hits" in straight lines depicting iron bolts along bedding timbers.

Amer concedes the wreckage is in pieces. But he wants to determine the vessel's length and more about its history.

The archaeologist with the university's South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology said he hopes the project can attract more research dollars. He wants to know, for example, more about the navy yard, which built at least two other vessels, one a steam tender, the other a torpedo (bomb) boat.

"Anything Confederate is gold," Amer said.

CNN's Phil Gast contributed to this report.