Gunboat discovery comes after years of sightings, botched efforts

By Craig Brandhorst - Free Times

As South Carolina’s deputy state archaeologist for underwater, USC’s Chris Amer has helped discover, map and excavate more than a few shipwrecks over the years, including the Civil War submarine H.L. Hunley and a slew of other vessels along the East Coast and elsewhere.

Now, Amer and his colleagues are in the news again following the recent discovery of a Civil War vessel in the muddy waters of the Pee Dee River.

The Confederate gunboat CSS Pee Dee, which Amer and State Archeologist Jonathan Leader discovered near Marion in November — 18 months after discovering two of the boat’s three enormous cannons at the bottom of the river — was one of 22 similar gunboats built at inland naval yards across the South.

Since discovering the Pee Dee’s cannons, Amer and his colleagues have brought up seven artillery shells and plan to bring up several more.

They are also making plans to raise the two cannons they’ve already found — a 9-inch Dahlgren and a 6.4-inch Brooke Rifled Cannon — sometime next summer.

If they can find the third gun, also a Brooke cannon, they will raise that as well. All of the artifacts will be housed in the Florence County Museum.

“They’re building a huge new facility there,” Amer says. “There will be a whole exhibition about the Civil War, and specifically about the Mars Bluff Naval Yard and the shipwreck.”

As warships go, the CSS Pee Dee had a fairly humble military career — in fact, it never reached the open sea, as by the time of its completion the Union army had already captured Georgetown. It has nonetheless enjoyed a storied afterlife, marked by sightings, disruptions and attempts to salvage pieces of it for posterity and/or profit.

Launched at Mars Bluff in January of 1865, the 150-foot gunboat participated in exactly one skirmish three months later, about 40 miles upstream, near Cheraw.

There, it provided cover for the Confederate troops of General William Hardee as they retreated from the advancing troops of General William T. Sherman. Subsequently, the gunboat was returned to Mars Bluff, where it was torched, possibly blown up and irretrievably sunk by its own crew so it would not be captured.

In the ensuing century-and-a-half, the river level periodically changed and the CSS Pee Dee reappeared several times.

Amer says that an ensign in the U.S. Navy spotted the boat shortly after the Civil War, and in 1906 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers pushed its wreckage onto a sandbar while dredging the river.

Nearly two decades after that, the United Sons of the Confederacy managed to remove the boat’s propellers, which wound up on display at the Florence County Museum.

In 1954, however, much of what remained of the CSS Pee Dee was lost to history after a group of local businessmen also spotted the wreckage. Amer says the men brought in a bulldozer to make a road to the riverside then attempted to drag the boat ashore for display at a roadside attraction called Confederateland.

“Of course, this vessel had been burned and pushed ashore by the Corps of Engineers and possibly blown up, so it wasn’t very integral, and when they tried to pull it up it just broke into pieces,” Amer explains.

“So what they did is grab whatever they could — a 30-foot piece of the stern that was intact, a boiler and the two engines, the propeller shafts, anything else they could put their hands on.

Then they put them on display across the highway and charged two bits for people to see them. Over time, things disintegrated, and that was that.

I suspect the wood just dried up into powder. It was pretty much the end for those pieces.”


Civil War river

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