Civil War-Era Shipwreck Discovered Off N.C. Coast

Sonar operations reveal what may be a blockade runner


Published:

Courtesy North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources

Another pearl in the form of a large iron-hulled Civil War era steamer has been discovered in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of N.C., near Oak Island. Researchers and archaeologists from the Underwater Archaeology Branch of the North Carolina Office of State Archaeology and the Institute of International Maritime Research made the discovery Saturday, Feb. 27 during sonar operations.

The vessel is believed to possibly be the remains of one of three blockade runners used to penetrate the wall of Union naval vessels blocking the port of Wilmington during the Civil War. The goal of the Union blockade was to keep supplies from reaching the Confederacy through one of its most important ports and to prevent the export of cotton and other marketable items by the Southerners. The wreck is located 27 miles downstream from Wilmington near Fort Caswell at the mouth of the Cape Fear River, and is the first Civil War-era vessel discovered in the area in decades.

"A new runner is a really big deal," says Deputy State Archaeologist-Underwater and Director of the Underwater Archaeology Branch Billy Ray Morris. "The state of preservation on this wreck is among the best we've ever had."

Researchers will continue working to positively identify the vessel. Three blockade runners are known to have been lost in the area, the Agnes E. Fry, Spunkie and Georgianna McCaw. These operations are part of a major project funded by the National Park Service through the American Battlefield Protection Program.

Historical, cartographic and archaeological resources have been examined for the past two years to better understand the maritime components of the Fort Fisher campaign. Fortifications protected both entrances to the Cape Fear River from the Atlantic and were critical in keeping open a lifeline to the Confederacy until Fort Fisher fell in January 1865.

Researchers aboard the research vessel, Atlantic Surveyor, recorded the complete hull of the vessel. Students from the East Carolina University Maritime Studies Program will join the team as they continue gathering data on the new site, as weather permits.

The Underwater Archaeology Branch within the Office of State Archaeology is part of the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.

 

March 10, 2016 update from the Underwater Archaeology Branch in the Office of State Archaeology (within the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources):

In conditions of limited visibility of inches — or less — underwater archaeologists diving on the recently discovered shipwreck of a Civil War-era steamer are gathering data helpful to identifying the vessel recently discovered off the North Carolina coast. Working 27 miles below Wilmington at the mouth of the Cape Fear, the divers found unsettled river currents impaired the visibility at the wreck site in the adjoining Atlantic Ocean.

"We are thrilled with this latest discovery from our maritime history," says Secretary Susan Kluttz of the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. "These discoveries contribute to N.C.'s historical culture as we learn new lessons about Civil War-era trade, technology and shipboard life aboard this Scottish built blockade runner."

"Despite that obvious handicap we can confirm several details indicated in the sonar image," explains Billy Ray Morris, director of the Underwater Archaeology Branch of the Office of State Archaeology. "The extant remains are 225 feet long, both engines and the paddlewheel are missing, and least one boiler is still in its bed, and the stern of the vessel points toward the beach."

A detail not apparent on the sonar is the vessels framing pattern, which Morris says is single iron frames on 18-inch centers. The body of evidence adds to his certainty of the ship's identity. The wreck is a singular find and remarkable for its state of preservation and possible wealth of artifacts it contains.

"All of this evidence, when viewed in light of the extensive historical documentation on hand, supports rather strongly our working hypothesis that is wreck is Agnes E. Fry." These operations are part of a major project funded by the National Park Service through the American Battlefield Protection Program.

The two other blockade runners known to be in the area are too small and of an earlier design than the Agnes E. Fry, according to Morris. The researchers will continue to examine the wreck this week as weather conditions permit.

April 11, 2016 update from the Underwater Archaeology Branch in the Office of State Archaeology (within the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources):

The location, size and pieces missing from a the vessel have led the N.C. Office of State Archaeology to suspect that a shipwreck recorded Sat., Feb. 27, just off Oak Island is the blockade runner Agnes E. Fry, one of three Civil War shipwrecks thought to be in the area. A more sophisticated 3D sonar device will soon come to the aid of the underwater researchers, thanks to the Charlotte Fire Department, to help to confirm this boat's identity.

"As a result of the worldwide media attention that the discovery of the Agnes E. Fry has generated, we have received an incredibly generous offer from Capt. J.D. Thomas of the Charlotte Fire Department Special Operations/EMS Command," says Deputy State Archaeologist Billy Ray Morris. "Through his efforts, the latest version of a 3D sonar imaging device will be available for our use in this archaeological investigation." Capt. Thomas and a team of five search and rescue divers will assist the state's maritime archaeologists the week of April 18.

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