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Charleston lab restores Civil War cannons pulled from Pee Dee River in SC

The three lethal Civil War-era cannons pulled from the Confederate gunboat CSS Pee Dee were loaded for action when they were recovered.

That was maybe the biggest surprise for the conservators who confirmed the ship was ready to fight when it was scuttled in 1865 in the Pee Dee River near Florence as Union troops closed in.

Florence Veterans ofice display site

The CSS Pee Dee cannons will be put on display at this site outside the Veterans Affairs office at 707 National Cemetery Road, next to the Florence National Cemetery. Bo Petersen/Staff

The cannons, recovered in 2015, were restored and preserved in a four-year effort by the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in North Charleston. They will be placed on exhibit outside the Veterans Affairs building in Florence at a date yet to be announced.

The ship might have been one of the South’s greatest weapons had it ever seen action. But it was finished in the desperate days of the Confederacy as the war drew to a close. While the Pee Dee likely never saw action, its guns had been powdered and primed. Conservators knew this because when they turned the key on a brass fuse it fizzed like a soda.

A 9-pound ball was loaded into the single Dahlgren cannon. The two Brooke cannons were loaded with  forged grapeshot the size of billiard balls instead of the large, bullet-like shells they had been rifled to fire.


Grapeshot that has been restored and preserved that was found in Confederate-made Brooke cannons aboard the CSS Pee Dee, recovered in 2015, at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center on Tuesday, May 28, 2019, in North Charleston. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

"You can pretty much tell the desperation toward the end of the war. They were jamming anything they could get into those guns," said Nate Fulmer, an underwater archaeologist with the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of South Carolina, who helped in the recovery.

He is part of a SCIAA team now housed at the Lasch Center, at the Clemson University Restoration Institute, in what Stephanie Crette, the Lasch center director, called a valuable cross-pollinating.

The 150-foot-long ship would have been an imposing vessel. Crewed by more than 90 seamen, it was designed to break the Union’s blockade of Charleston, state Archaeologist Jonathan Leader said in 2015 at the recovery of the guns. 

The three cannons weighed nearly 20 tons in total and had been mounted on carriages so they could be swung in either direction.

The Pee Dee was built in the Confederate navy yard at Mars Bluff where the ship was scuttled. It was back in the woods well inland from the coast to hide it from the Union. 

Grapeshot fabric bag.jpg

Stephanie Crette, executive director of the Warren Lasch Conservation Center, reveals preserved textiles that were found wrapped around grapeshot that was inside the two Confederate-made Brooke cannons recovered from the CSS Pee Dee on Tuesday, May 28, 2019, in North Charleston. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

The guns, which had been pushed overboard before the ship was set on fire, were pulled one by one from the river near the navy yard site. Each was so heavy that a huge excavator tilted forward on its treads to raise it.

The Brookes were Confederate made. The Dahlgren smoothbore was a U.S. Navy gun and apparently had been seized from a Union vessel.

"These cannons help tell us about the dynamics of a conflict that defined the South more than any other event in our history," said Ben Zeigler, president of the Florence County Historical Society.

The display isn't intended to be a memorial but a reflection on human conflict, he said.

"They (the guns) were technological marvels created for a purpose that was never fulfilled and in a cause that will be remembered as fatally flawed by the injustice of chattel slavery," Zeigler said.

Cannon date 1864.jpg

The dates and size of the Confederate-made Brooke cannon recovered from the CSS Pee Dee in 2015 can be seen after it was restored and preserved at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center on Tuesday, May 28, 2019, in North Charleston. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Brooke rifles are esteemed. The historians gaped in 2015 when the 10- to 12-foot cannons were raised in such good shape. Cast iron and weighing 12,000 and 16,000 pounds, the Brookes are so sophisticated that they are not remarkably different from today’s guns.

The restoration took four years because the guns had to soak for two years in a solution to remove corrosive salts, then be prepared for the outdoor exhibit, Crette said.

Replica carriages couldn't be built until specific measurements could be made of the restored mountings on the guns.

"The 'textbooks' (preeminent artifacts) don't come up very often," Fulmer said.

The conservation team included Johanna Rivera, Anna Funke, Gyllian Porteous, Virginie Ternisien and Flavia Puoti. The recovery and restoration were paid for, in part, with a $200,000 grant from the Drs. Bruce and Lee Foundation in Florence.

Reach Bo Petersen at @bopete on Twitter or 843-937-5744.

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