COLUMBIA -- The recent discovery of what is believed to be a Confederate gunboat scuttled by its own crew in the Civil War's waning days could yield valuable knowledge about the South's sputtering attempts to maintain its own Navy, South Carolina's state archaeologist said Wednesday.
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 under water, the team found large bolts in a straight line, evidence Leader said likely means they've found a ship.
"You are actually able to paint a picture," Leader said of the equipment the team used. "You don't find a lot of straight lines in nature. You find bolts in a straight line, you have something."
Leader thinks that the team has found the CSS Pee Dee, a Confederate naval gunboat being sheltered inland, away from Union blockades on nearby sea ports. In mid-February 1865, after an upriver skirmish with a Union ship, the crew frantically worked to destroy 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.
Various teams from the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology have been working for decades to find the CSS Pee Dee, and their perceived success this year may not have happened without the help of someone who witnessed something unique when he was a child.
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 by the mystery ever since, Hartley 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.
"I have always known, because I saw it, where that boat was," Hartley said. "I'm just pleased that it isn't all gone or isn't all so ruined that something can't be learned from it."
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, a Civil War 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 CSS Pee Dee until the wreck is raised and examined. But Leader said evidence like the guns already known to have belonged to the ship make researchers confident they have found their prize.
"What you have is an anomaly that fits. The proof is in the pudding when you actually put your hand on it," Leader said. "We clearly have materials from the vessel. Whether we have the complete wreck of the vessel remains to be seen."
Amer and Leader also have been working to locate the site of the Mars Bluff Naval Yard, which once stood on the Pee Dee River. Leader plans to return to the area in the spring for more tests.
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