As South Carolina commemorates the 150th anniversary of its secession from the Union, archeologists are providing details about some of the final days of the resulting war.
Wednesday, South Carolina’s state archaeologist discussed the recent discovery of what is believed to be the Confederate gunboat CSS Pee Dee, scuttled by its own crew in the Civil War’s waning days.
In November, Jonathan Leader — state archaeologist and researcher at the University of South Carolina — worked with fellow researcher Chris Amer to explore the Pee Dee River in the northeastern part of the state.
Using sonar to search underwater, the team found large bolts in a straight line, evidence Leader says likely means they’ve found a ship, according to The Associated Press.
They believe the find could yield valuable knowledge about the South’s attempts to maintain its own navy.
Leader believes that the team has found the CSS Pee Dee, a Confederate naval gunboat. In mid-February 1865, after an upriver skirmish with a Union ship, the crew scuttled the Pee Dee so it wouldn’t fall into enemy hands, Leader said.
“They started dismantling the vessel and burning it,” Leader said. “It’s a debris field.”
It’s because of that frenzied activity that Leader said pieces of the Pee Dee are strewn over a wide area. The discovery comes a year and a half after the duo discovered two cannons belonging to the ship.
Records are hard to come by, but it appears the Pee Dee was a Macon-class gunboat, 170 feet long with a 25-foot beam and drew approximately eight feet of water.
The ship likely had two Confederate brooks rifled cannons and one captured Union Dahlgren, smooth-bore, nine-inch shell cannon on board at the time of its sinking.
Various teams from the S.C. Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology have been working for decades to find the CSS Pee Dee, and their perceived success this year may have not have happened without the help of a child, according to The Associated Press.
Michael O. Hartley, now the director of archaeology at Old Salem Museum & Gardens in Winston-Salem, N.C., was 12 years old in 1954 when he watched men pull what turned out to be the CSS Pee Dee’s boiler from the river.
Intrigued, Hartley has since kept notes on subsequent explorations in the area and drew a map of the location where the boiler was revealed. When he heard about the cannon discovery last year, Hartley got in touch with Amer’s team and shared his information.
It will take time before crews can remove the cannons and ship from the river and move them to a lab for further study. Experts on Confederate naval history hope the CSS Pee Dee will teach historians about the Confederacy’s attempts to create a Navy from scratch and what materials and techniques were used.
“It’s an example of the South’s naval strategy to free the ports of the blockade,” said Bob Neyland, former project director for the H.L. Hunley, the Confederate submarine that was the first in history to sink an enemy warship. “It’s a different strategy from the North, which focused more on blockading and suffocating the ports of the Confederacy and cutting off all supply.”
Researchers won’t be certain they’ve located the wreck until the material is raised and examined. But Leader says evidence like the guns already known to have belonged to the ship make researchers confident they have found their prize.
Artifacts from the CSS Pee Dee can be found at the War Between The States Museum in Florence.
(Above: The CSS Chattahoochee depicted in this painting was similar to the CSS Pee Dee in appearance.)