Archaeologists retrieve renowned Civil War guns from the Pee Dee

A team of underwater archaeologists from the University of South Carolina raised three Civil War cannons from the bottom of the Great Pee Dee River on Tuesday near Florence. The three cannons will be transported to Warren Lasch Conservation Center in North Charleston for conservation before being put on permanent display in Florence.

MARS BLUFF — Three lost cannons from a Confederate gunboat came out of the Pee Dee River on Tuesday, guns so ponderous the huge excavator tilted forward on its treads to raise them.

The cannons were pushed overboard a century and a half ago from a ship that might have been one of the South’s greatest weapons, had it ever seen action.

With Union troops closing in near the end of the war, the CSS Pee Dee was set on fire in 1865 as the Confederate boatyard near Florence was demolished.

The 150-foot-long ship featured two Brooke rifled cannons and a Dahlgren smoothbore cannon seized from a Union ship.

The guns were mounted on carriages so they could be swung in either direction.

Crewed by more than 90 seamen, the ship was designed to break the Union’s blockade and could have brought supplies from England, said State Archaeologist Jonathan Leader.

It was built by locals using materials on hand, the women selling their jewelry and holding dances to pay for it, said Florence County historian Ben Zeigler. It’s possible the guns have never been fired in a fight.

“It’s not some great battle or act of heroism. It was hard work that ended in futility,” Zeigler said. “In that way it’s emblematic of the entire war.”

The guns were to be taken to the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in North Charleston to be restored and preserved before going on exhibit at the newly constructed Veterans Affairs building in Florence. They will commemorate a ship that, as Zeigler noted, is a regional historic pride.

The Lasch center is where work is underway restoring the Confederate submarine Hunley.

The guns “are a treasure just by themselves. But (the recovery) gives another treasure to history. They are more than just objects,” said Lasch center conservator Virginie Ternisien.

She and Leader were astounded at how good a shape the guns were still in. As one was settled on dry land, Leader pointed to the still intact sights and said, “I’ve had shotguns that didn’t look as good.”

As fascinating as the recovery was, the tales behind it are riveting:

The Mars Bluff Navy Yard was built in the woods well inland from the coast to hide it from the Union. The CSS Pee Dee would have steamed and sailed down to Charleston to start battle. When the ship was burned, it drifted downstream before settling on the bottom.

Drought years in the 1920s exposed it to souvenir collectors and piece by piece it was lost. Zeigler’s father, in fact, had possession of a spike. In the 1950s, the large-piece boilers and hull virtually vanished. The lore is they were taken to be exhibited at Confederate Land, precursor to today’s Pedro’s South of the Border tourist stop along Interstate 95 near Florence.

Rumor has it that what wasn’t salvaged lies under South of the Border’s parking lot.

The guns sank into the clay beneath the boatyard and could not be located for years, until a letter was found from one of the crew members that mentioned them getting pushed overboard in the river off the yard.

In the 1990s, amateur diver Ted Gragg was waiting for an appointment with a woman who started describing an “iron log” in the Pee Dee where she liked to fish. Gragg took his daughter and a boyfriend to try to find it. The boyfriend reached in the water and pulled out a cannon shot for one of the Brookes.

Gragg and diver Bob Butler went after the guns and found two, running their hands almost blindly along the bottom murk. Butler was the first to touch one. “I thought about how it hadn’t been touched in 150 years. I thought of the people who pushed it over (off the ship),” he said.

The last Brooke rifle was found by Glenn Dutton and Rufus Perdue, professional salvagers, when a 2012 drought dropped the river again. They went out with metal scanners. On Tuesday, Dutton was at the controls of the excavator, straining under the maximum weight it could lift when it raised the larger, 15,000 pound Brooke, the heaviest of the guns.

“It’s a moment in history,” he said. “It’s been a long time coming. We’re glad to have it.”

Brooke rifles are esteemed, and the historians gaped when the 10- to 12-foot cannons were raised in such good shape. Cast iron and weighing 9,000 to 15,000 pounds, the Brookes are so sophisticated that they are not remarkably different from today’s guns.

The rifles were cast at the Selma Foundry in Alabama. On Tuesday, Catesby Jones waited in a wheelchair for them. Jones’ great-grandfather ran the foundry, and Jones had touched every one of them that’s been recovered, Perdue said, except these two. He planned to kiss them.

The guns might be among the last large artifacts from the war in South Carolina to be recovered from a known site, the archaeologist Leader said, But, “knowing what I know about South Carolina, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were more,” he said.

The recovery and restoration are being paid for in part with a $200,000 grant from the Drs. Bruce and Lee Foundation in Florence.

Reach Bo Petersen at (843) 937-5744.