Hunt is on for War of 1812 ship in Charleston Harbor
During the War of 1812, the American commander of the U.S. Revenue Cutter Gallatin came ashore for business in Charleston.
The War of 1812 in S.C.
Some 30 years after the American Revolution, the United States was in conflict again with England in the War of 1812.The two major contributors were the continued British practice of impressing American merchant sailors into Royal Navy service, and expanded British interests in the west, fomented by ties to Native American tribes.There were no major land battles here. Most of the encounters were sea-related, and the state’s coastal defenses were elevated.The British did make attempts to blockade ports and conducted occasional raids toward rich Sea Island plantations, including around the Beaufort area.
Behind him, Captain John Silliman’s men stayed busy cleaning the ship’s supply of muskets and pistols — part of the daily routine needed to stay prepped and ready for the next patrol.
As the chore wore on, someone moved too close to the ship’s store of gunpowder where a spark was triggered, followed by a giant explosion. Shortly before 11 a.m. on April 1, 1813, the Gallatin ripped apart.
Three crew members were dead and five others severely injured. A local newspaper called it a “most melancholy occurrence.”
Two hundred years later, there’s new hope for the Gallatin.
Beginning this morning, a team of archaeologists and divers will begin hunting for what’s left of the 200-year-old wreck on the chance there may be enough salvageable to add to the 1812 story.
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,” said Jim Spirek, an underwater archaeologist at the S.C. Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology.
Still, Spirek admits, that after two centuries and a greatly shifted waterfront, it may be a long shot to find much of anything.
The 100-foot long Gallatin — named for Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin — was part of America’s infant Treasury Department. It was officially considered a “Revenue” ship, making it a precursor to the modern-day Coast Guard. Its mission included enforcing U.S. maritime regulations covering incoming cargo inspections, embargoes and the like.
Additional duties during the War of 1812 included combat patrols (it carried eight cannons and a crew of 65) and seizing enemy and other suspect shipping.
Records of the day indicate the Gallatin had an impressive service record around the South Carolina and Southeastern coast.
One ship’s entry from August 1812 said it captured the English vessel General Blake: “The British ship flew Spanish colors and carried an illegal cargo including African slaves.”
The record also shows the ship and crew were active right up to the very end. The Gallatin’s last sail was a five-day patrol where she discovered British ships gathering off Port Royal.
Today, she is believed to be one of at least three wrecks in South Carolina waters lost during the war.
This week’s search will be confined to a “box” of the shallow harbor close to the city’s waterfront and in an area running roughly between the U.S. Customhouse and the Old Exchange Building.
The initial plan calls for dragging a side-scan sonar device behind a boat while looking for sunken “anomalies” in the muck. 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 odds are long,” Spirek said Monday. But he added, “If we don’t look, we’ll never know.”
Other agencies taking part in the search are the College of Charleston, the Coast Guard and divers from the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office, among other local resources. Boat fuel will be the biggest expense.
As a precursor to the search, members of Coast Guard Sector Charleston held a memorial service Monday morning at Waterfront Park in remembrance of the crewmen killed and injured.
Coast Guard Chaplain Len Driskell said the day was part of the long tradition of remembering those in service “who went down to the sea.”
Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.