FORT SUMTER NATIONAL MONUMENT — They are there just where they landed in Fort Sumter a century and a half ago — three Union shells from rifled Parrot guns embedded in the masonry wall of the garrison where the first shots of the Civil War were fired.
Because removing the shells would damage the fragile walls of the aging fort in Charleston Harbor, they have been preserved in place by scientists from the nearby Clemson University Restoration Institute.
The project not only helps preserve the shells and the wall, but allows visitors to better imagine what it might have been like for the Confederate defenders of the fort. Historians say the city and the fort were the object of the longest bombardment in the history of the Western Hemisphere.
One day earlier this month, institute conservators Liisa Nasanen and Paul Mardikian worked on the shells, first applying deionized water to them and carefully catching the runoff to test how much salt had been removed from the iron.
The salts remaining can continue to corrode the iron, which is exposed to the open salt air.
“It would be great to remove all the salts,” Mardikian said. “But all we are doing now is reducing the threshold. We’re reducing the amount, but can’t say we are removing all the salts.”
Then the shells were dried, using a device similar to a hair dryer, before a material was applied to help consolidate the iron on the shell so no more metal flakes off.
Nasanen is heading the project and has worked with Clemson researchers to preserve shells found at Sumter and Fort Moultrie. She said that trying to conserve iron objects outside is not ideal.
“It’s always something we have to battle with outdoor projects,” she said. “We have to look at the humidity and the temperature and things like that. We have to not only look at the artifact itself but the conservation materials to make sure they work.”
The work is being done under a multi-year, $900,000 agreement between the National Park Service and Clemson, said Rick Dorrance, chief of resource management at Fort Sumter.
Clemson scientists are working with the Park Service to research the best ways to preserve both the artifacts and the architectural elements of both Fort Sumter and Fort Moultrie on Sullivans Island, he said.