Archaeologists seek cutter lost 200 years ago

Revenue Cutter Surveyor

A research team led by underwater archaeologists from the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology began searching this week for a revenue cutter that exploded in Charleston Harbor 200 years ago.

The US Revenue Cutter Gallatin came ashore on April 1, 1813, in Charleston, where its crew took on supplies and prepared for their next mission. Apparently, a spark reached the ship’s powder store because shortly after 11 a.m., the Gallatin was blown apart.

Despite the devastating impact of the explosion, which killed three crew members and seriously injured five others, researchers believe there’s a chance relics from the vessel may still be recoverable after two centuries, according to the Charleston Post and Courier.

“Personal effects or artifacts that represent the state of South Carolina’s coastal defenses might ‘give a glimpse of the War of 1812 through the actual archaeological record,’” Jim Spirek, an underwater archaeologist at the S.C. Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology, told the newspaper.

Spirek, however, is cautious. After 200 years, during which the city’s waterfront has been greatly altered, the odds of finding the cutter seem daunting.

“The initial plan calls for dragging a side-scan sonar device behind a boat while looking for sunken ‘anomalies’ in the muck,” the Post and Courier reported. “If something of curiosity is found, for example, a collection of ballast stones, divers would go into the water for a closer look. The ship’s cannons were reported to have been recovered shortly after the disaster, so they aren’t on the menu.”

The Gallatin was 100 feet long and had a crew of 65.

South Carolina had a limited role in the War of 1812, and the Gallatin wasn’t a war ship, but instead part of the US Treasury Department.

It was officially considered a “Revenue” ship, making it a predecessor to today’s Coast Guard vessels. Its mission included enforcing US maritime regulations covering incoming cargo inspections and embargoes, including the decidedly unpopular Enemy Trade Act.

The latter was signed into law by President James Madison in July 1812 and prohibited nearly all trade with Great Britain, according to the Encyclopedia of the War of 1812.

While not specifically a war ship, the Gallatin did carry out combat patrols during the War of 1812 and seized enemy shipping, according to the Post and Courier.

Contemporary records indicate the Gallatin had an impressive service record along the Southeastern coast.

One ship’s entry from the summer of 1812 said the Gallatin captured the English vessel General Blake: “The British ship flew Spanish colors and carried an illegal cargo including African slaves,” the paper recounted.

(Above: Capture of the Surveyor, 12 June 1813; Irwin John Bevan; Mariners’ Museum, Newport News, Va. The Surveyor was a sister ship of the Gallatin.)

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