USC Team Maps Charleston Harbor Underwater Battlefield
(October 2012 Civil War News)

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Archeologist James Spirek from USC leads the team that is exploring Charleston Harbor and its underwater battlefield.

CHARLESTON, S.C. — The University of South Carolina (USC) recently announced that a team of its archeologists has mapped Charleston Harbor and what remains from the struggle for control of the harbor during the Civil War.

The team’s major findings were discovery of the First Stone Fleet and several Confederate blockade runners.

The mapping provides historical and archeological detail showing where military actions took place, where underwater obstructions were created and the spots where Union ironclads and Confederate blockade runners sank.

The National Park Service, which funded the project through an American Battlefield Protection grant with matching funds from USC, will use the survey to preserve the battlefield.

Information gathered about the wrecks and obstructions also will be valuable to harbor managers, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and to USC archeologists to ensure that underwater relics aren’t damaged during such projects as beach renourishment and deepening of the harbor.

USC underwater archeologist James Spirek directed the project that began in 2008 and wrapped up this spring. He has been an archaeologist in the College of Arts and Sciences’ S.C. Institute for Archaeology and Anthropology (SCIAA) since 1996.

He applied the same approach that was used to understand the historic landscape of Gettysburg to understand the Civil War naval operations at Charleston Harbor.

Spirek said the scheme, called KOCOA, “is a modern concept based on ages-old military tenets that gets archeologists and historians to think about how the participants saw the battlefield,” in this case the harbor.

He had to define the harbor battlefield boundaries from the perspective of Union and Confederate forces. He conducted research on Confederate and Union ships and naval actions using official records, the National Archives, Library of Congress and USC’s South Caroliniana Library and Digital Collections.

His archeological work centered on locating the various shipwrecks and obstructions. He located the famous First Stone Fleet, a series of stone-filled New England whaling and merchant vessels sunk by Union forces to prevent Confederate blockade runners from entering the harbor, and found blockade runners, most of which sank in Maffitt’s Channel along Sullivan’s Island.

Spirek said the Union created a blockade of naval ships placed in arc fashion that stretched from Dewee’s Inlet by the north end of Isle of Palms, then called Long Island, down to Stono Inlet, south of Folly Beach. 

Between the two inlets and within the arc were five channels that led into the harbor; from the north: Maffitt’s Channel, North Channel, Swash Channel, the Main Ship Channel and Lawford Channel.

The Confederate perspective of the battlefield looked out from Charleston, Spirek said.

Besides the city being fortified there were key points within the harbor itself. Closest to the city were Castle Pinckney and a sand island that was turned into Fort Ripley. Fort Sumter and Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island were in the harbor’s mouth. Farther out were Battery Marshall to the north of Isle of Palms and Battery Wagner on Morris Island, now underwater, to the south.

Confederate obstructions included framed torpedoes so that Union ships coming in would hit them and blow up. Chains and rock weights held the torpedoes at an incline and slightly below the water to cause the torpedoes to strike the bottom of a vessel. “They essentially created a mine field for Union forces,” said Spirek.

Because Charleston Harbor was a lifeline for the Confederacy to bring in war materials and supplies and to exit with naval provisions and exports of cotton and rice, the U.S. Navy was determined to block the two main entrances, Main Ship Channel and Maffitt’s Channel, Spirek said.

The U.S. Navy bought 45 ex-whaling and merchant vessels. Sixteen of the stone-filled vessels, the First Stone Fleet, were sunk Dec. 17-21, 1861, in the Main Ship Channel. Another 13 were sunk Jan. 20-26 in Maffitt’s Channel.

“For many years people surmised that they were sunk and broke apart and slipped under the quicksands, as they called it, and were gone and buried,” Spirek said. “That is what I believed.”

He said magnetometers to detect ferrous materials such as iron or steel were of limited use because the ships were stripped of masts, anchors, chains and the like, which Confederates could have been salvaged.

Overlaying old maps with new maps, the team began its search with a magnetometer and a side-scan sonar, which uses acoustic waves to picture the ocean floor.

Spirek’s team found the mounds that comprised the First Stone Fleet.

While historical accounts indicated that the U.S. Navy sank the ships in an organized checkerboard fashion so that ships couldn’t travel straight through, that isn’t what Spirek found.

“What we found was 15 ballast mounds, 14 of which were tightly packed together with the wrecks oriented along various points of the compass. We were surprised that the archaeological record shows a more happenstance distribution,” he said.

The Second Stone Fleet remains somewhat elusive. Spirek’s team found four wrecks with large stones at the entrance of Maffitt’s channel, but Spirek said they appear to be boulder-laden flat-bottom boats used to construct the Charleston Harbor jetties that were built from 1878-1896.

He said expansion of the survey coverage east and west, and perhaps north and south, should eventually pinpoint the remains of the second stone fleet.

Despite Union efforts, the majority of Confederate blockade runners were successful in getting in and out of Charleston Harbor.

Spirek said the blockade runners were low and painted gray to blend with the ground. “They would steam quietly in, close to the beach during high tides on moonless nights, letting the lights of the Confederate armies on Sullivan’s Island and the sound of the surf tell them whether they were too close and needed to bear left. Then they would turn on the juice if they started to get fired at. The advantage was completely with the blockade runner.”

Spirek said while positions of the Union ironclads were well-documented, the Confederate blockade runners’ locations were hazy and incomplete.

He said the team looked at 16 wrecks, 13 of which were blockade runners. They found remains of blockade runners in two clusters with two outliers, all wrecked along Maffitt’s Channel in attempts to elude the Union blockaders.

Close to the Isle of Palms beach is the wreck of the Georgiana, which led to the sinking of the Mary Bowers, found at the same site, followed by the Constance close by.

“While the vast majority made it through, the blockade runner had to be pretty fortuitous to avoid wrecking. The trio of the Georgiana, Mary Bowers and Constance just had bad luck,” Spirek said.

A second cluster of seven wrecks was located at Fort Moultrie and Bowman’s Jetty on Sullivan’s Island. Four wrecks were found buried under the Sullivan’s Island beach, covered by sand and sediment.

With the help of USC archeologist Jonathan Leader, the team tentatively identified two of three blockade runners on the beach, most likely the Beatrice and the Flora, with the Celt remaining undetected. The Presto is under an area covered with trees and will be revisited in the winter.

In addition to these major findings, Spirek was able to locate several Union ironclad monitors by using previous survey reports and sonar technology and magnetometers. 

These included the Patapsco, sunk by a torpedo obstruction near Fort Sumter; the Weehawken, south of Battery Wagner in the Main Ship Channel; and the Keokuk, an           ironclad of experimental design that sank at the entrance of the Main Ship Channel after being pounded by Confederate artillery on April 7, 1863.

Specific GPS coordinates were assigned to each wreck for future investigation.

To help people visualize the Charleston Harbor battlefield, the SCIAA team created a virtual tour of the naval battlefield at http://artsandsciences.sc.edu/sciaa/mrd/regsvys_chashbr_vt.html