Federal forces spent four years trying to silence Confederate guns on Fort Moultrie, but the massive iron weapons face just as formidable a foe today: the environment.
To protect the 10 historic siege and garrison guns still located at the Sullivans Island fortification, preservationists have turned to technology, including computer sensors, in a bid to defend them from the salt and humidity omnipresent along the South Carolina coast.
The guns of Fort Moultrie are of particular historical significance because they were among the weapons that were used to fire on Fort Sumter April 12-13, 1861, officially beginning the War Between the States.
“The last of the guns, a 7-ton Union rifled Parrott gun suspended in a yellow sling held by a crane, was slowly jockeyed into place onto a new concrete base last week,” according to The Associated Press. “It completes what the fort refers to as Cannon Row, where seven of the heavy guns are lined up next to each other.”
The conservation work, which included coating nearly all the guns in rust-retarding epoxy, is being done through a collaborative effort between the National Park Service and Clemson University’s Restoration Institute.
The price tag for the multi-year conservation effort is $900,000.
Last winter, conservators from the Clemson Restoration Institute visited the site, where they conserved shells that had become embedded in fort walls during the bombardment.
The shells were being preserved in place because removing them would have damaged fragile brickwork, according to The Associated Press.
Now, all but one of Fort Moultrie’s big guns are coated with a modern epoxy, according to Institute conservator Liisa Nasanen.
“The paint that was on them was an oil-based coating. That is historically correct, but it’s not something that necessarily does the trick when it comes to keeping the artifact safe,” she said. “We kind of borrowed ideas, and this epoxy system is something very widely used in the marine industry.”
The one cannon repainted with oil-based paint will allow comparisons as to which system works best, the wire service added.
The project began in 2011, according to the blog To the Sound of the Guns, which described the preservation procedure:
“In the process, the guns are stripped of old paint, then refinished with a modern industrial sealant. Each gun receives a tampion to cover the bore. The staff will periodically check a monitor placed inside each gun bore for humidity readings, in order to arrest further corrosion. When refurbished, the guns return to “cannon row” on new concrete pads. The park also plans to update the older interpretive signage along cannon row as part of this project.”
Sensors, sealed in the barrels of the cannon, store information on humidity and temperature. The data can be downloaded to a computer to provide continuous monitoring of the iron inside the cannon.
The guns were cast in foundries in both the North and South a century and a half ago.
Most of the guns were in good shape when initially checked by conservators, Nasanen said.
“There were variations though. They come from different foundries and have different compositions,” she said. “Some of them that had been on the ground were in worse condition because there would be most exposed to the elements.”
Moultrie’s collection includes some rare Confederate pieces, said Rick Hatcher, historian for the national monument.
It’s extremely rare to have Civil War combat cannon of this size – siege and garrison guns – in one place where visitors can go see them because most such guns did not survive after the war, he added.
“With Confederate-made guns, some were kept as trophies of war but others were considered not in that good of condition or maybe not that well-made and they were sold for scrap,” he said, adding even Union pieces were sold. “We had a $3 billion war debt after the Civil War and they were looking for ways of paying it off.”
(Top: ‘Cannon Row’ at Fort Moultrie, prior to conservation of Civil War-era guns. Photo credit: To the Sound of the Guns.)