Archaeologists pluck 3 Civil War cannons from Pee Dee River - FOX Carolina 21

Archaeologists pluck 3 Civil War cannons from Pee Dee River

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FLORENCE, SC (AP/WIS) - Archaeologists from the University of South Carolina have pulled three cast iron Civil War cannons from the waters of a South Carolina river where they were hidden for 150 years.

Using a front loader's mechanical arm, the three weapons were plucked from the muck of the Pee Dee River Tuesday morning. Divers were in the water to assist with the removal. 

It took about 30 minutes to raise each cannon.

South Carolina state archaeologist Johnathan Leader says the cannons are in pristine condition because they were in fresh river water, not salt water. Confederate forces pushed the cannons into the river from a gunboat to keep Union forces from seizing them in 1865.

The heaviest of the three cannons weighed 15,000 pounds. As the cannons were drawn to the surface, a mixture of silt and water spilled from their muzzles.

Researchers from the University of South Carolina's Institute of Archeology and Anthropology have been working since 2009 at the site of the Confederate Mars Bluff Navy Yard, located east of Florence along the Pee Dee River.

The two Confederate Brooke rifle cannons (11.8 and 12.25 feet each) and one captured Union Dahlgren cannon (8.9 feet) were artillery of the CSS Pee Dee, a 150-foot Confederate gunboat, built to patrol waterways and protect the coast.

“The recovery of these three cannons -- the complete armament of a Confederate gunboat -- offers unique insight in the arming and intended role of this warship to contest the Union blockade off the coast of South Carolina and to perhaps engage in high seas raiding against Northern merchant vessels,” said James Spirek, an underwater archaeologist with the University’s South Carolina Institute for Archeology and Anthropology.

Dozens of spectators lined the river banks near Marion to watch the recovery Tuesday afternoon. 

Just three months after it launched, the CSS Pee Dee’s career was cut short on March 15, 1865, in response to U.S. Gen. William T. Sherman’s northward advance to North Carolina. Fearing that the gunboat might fall into enemy hands, commanders ordered the cannons thrown overboard into the river before the ship was set ablaze and scuttled.

The UofSC team began its search for the Confederate Mars Bluff Navy Yard and the elusive 150-foot Confederate gunboat with its cannons in March 2009. Their efforts were greatly facilitated by earlier work conducted at the site, particularly by a private research group, the CSS Pee Dee Research and Recovery Team, operating under an archaeological license issued by SCIAA in the late 1990s. 

The University archeology team also knew that the wreck was broken up by a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredging operation in 1906 and parts, including propellers, engines and a boiler, were recovered in salvage operations in later decades.

The cannons will be transported to the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in North Charleston to be restored. It is the same facility that is working on restoring the Hunley Confederate submarine. 

Once the two-year restoration is completed, the cannons will go on display outside the newly constructed U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs building in Florence. 

The project was funded in part by a grant more than $200,000 from the Drs. Bruce and Lee Foundation in Florence.

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