Monday, December 4, 2023

Was this wagon wheel shattered in explosion as Sherman's troops took S.C. capital? Experts hope to learn more when they conserve hundreds of artifacts

The wheel hub recovered from the Congaree River (Courtesy of Sean Norris, TRC Companies)
A metal detector first noticed the round object buried in the bed of the Congaree River in Columbia, S.C. Archaeologists surmised it was a just another rubber tire -- one of many found during an extensive river cleanup.

After all, some 2.5 tons of debris – including trash, tires and scrap metal – were carted off during the removal of toxic, century-old coal tar along the shoreline, Dominion Energy announced last month.

Crews decided to dig out the object by hand, expecting an item made well past the Civil War-era.

“Once it was exposed, we knew we had something much more interesting than that,” said Sean Norris, program archaeologist for TRC Companies, a subcontractor for Dominion Energy.

The item was the shattered hub of a wagon wheel, and it’s possible it was damaged in an explosion when Union troops who took the city in February 1865 dumped tons of captured Confederate ordnance into the Congaree. (Photo below, courtesy of South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum)

The artifact was found an area where numerous rounds of Civil War ammunition were recovered.

“We had a few folks from the (South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum) take a preliminary look and our consensus was that this wheel fit the time frame for a Civil War-era wagon. The location in association with other artifacts of that time period lead us to believe that this wheel was deposited around the same time the other ordnance was dumped in the river,” Norris said in an email.

“The official records mention the explosion and the destruction of a wagon and a team of mules in a couple correspondences. It seems possible that what was left of the wagon after it was destroyed was thrown in the river along with everything else that was being dumped. There would be no specific reason for the wagon parts to be discarded elsewhere.”

Wartime reports indicated three Federal soldiers, including Capt. Williamson M. Davis, died in the explosion. Another 20 or so troops were injured.

The wheel, which shows signs of charring, currently rests in a plastic vat at the Relic Room in Columbia as it awaits conservation.

The museum typically has it covered with a wet towel and plastic bag to keep in moisture. Exposed wood -- if left to dry before conservation -- can disintegrate, experts said.

Archaeologists recovered about 500 Civil War artifacts during the project. Most of those will go to the Relic Room after treatment, which could take up to 18 months, said Chelsea Sigourney, curator of exhibits and collections.

Exhibit on burning of Columbia (Courtesy South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum)
“Some artifacts will be stabilized in distilled water and later go through electrolysis” at the South Carolina Institute for Archaeology and Anthropology (SCIAA), Sigourney told the Picket.

“I’d like to be able to have a small exhibit about what is collected from the dig, but that is a project for the future. I wouldn’t even attempt to set a date for that until we hear conservation is complete,” the curator said.

The Relic Room has exhibits that mention Sherman’s occupation and the burning of the capital.

Remnants of Rebel sword, canister and iron spike points (James Legg, SCIAA)
James Legg, public archaeologist for SCIAA, said the agency will handle the bulk of the conservation work. 

“I think I currently have about 200 Civil War artifacts and an assortment of other metal artifacts. This is essentially what the EOD (explosive ordnance disposal) teams recovered during excavation, and it was convenient to bring it on over here to SCIAA in anticipation of the TRC contract,” Legg told the Picket.

“TRC still has a collection of similar or somewhat smaller size that was recovered during the off-site screening process. They may conserve some or all of that group,” he said.

Numerous cannonballs were recovered (James Legg, SCIAA)
The Civil War-related artifacts found during the project include some 6-pounder, 12-pounder and 10-inch projectiles, a large number of canister and grape shot balls, canister plates, small arms ammunition and a Confederate sword blade. Only the lead bullets will not require conservation

“The entire collection (or the half or more that I do) will take about a year to complete, once we begin. I will use electrolytic reduction, manual cleaning and other neutralization techniques before sealing each piece,” Legg wrote in an email.

He said it was unclear who would do the work on the wagon wheel. 

Allen Roberson, executive director of the Relic Room, said he has submitted a proposal for funding of an exhibit room on the discoveries.

Details of Sherman's campaign (Courtesy South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum)
“Some of that dig is fascinating,” Roberson told the Carolina News and Reporter. “I think the archaeological recovery is almost as insane as what you pull out of the river.”

He told the news outlet that the exhibit may open in a year and a half to two years.

Norris said most of the river artifacts are at a TRC Companies laboratory, awaiting conservation and curation. He expects analysis of the wheel to begin in the new year.

Archaeologists did not find any other wheels, metal hubs or large pieces of wood near the wheel.

Friday, December 1, 2023

A giant oak at the Resaca battlefield in NW Georgia was a thing of beauty. Now the witness tree is gone, a victim of time and a storm

Tree in better days, after storm, reduced to stump, a writing in the wood (Friends of Resaca)
An imposing witness tree that greeted visitors to Resaca Battlefield Historic Site in northwest Georgia is gone, lost to weather and old age.

Ken Padgett with the Friends of Resaca said the oak was only about 10 years old during the May 13-15, 1864, Battle of Resaca, the second-bloodiest of the Atlanta Campaign. A Georgia Department of Natural Resources employee performed a drilling of the tree in about 2014 and came up with the estimate, he said.

The friends group recently posted photos of the stump and said a storm last year finished off the oak, which was showing signs of decay.

“She was a beautiful tree,” one Facebook commenter said. “The field looked bare yesterday without her, even though it needed to be done.”

Before it was recently cut up and hauled away, portions of the tree were propped up and it was a safety risk to the public, according to Tony Patton of the friends group.

Much of the western part of the battlefield is contained within the park, which is bordered by Interstate 75.

The spot where the tree was located is approximately the area where the Union’s 20th Corps and the 14th Corps overlapped one another, said Patton (in Friends of Resaca photo).

Federal units attacked the Confederate line on May 14, and Hooker’s 20th Corps supported Palmer’s 14th Corps in the Camp Creek area near the witness tree. (See American Battlefield Trust map below for details on units)

The once-proud oak had broken limbs after a 2022 storm (Friends of Resaca)
Patton said it’s difficult to pin down specific units that attacked near the oak but the 102nd Illinois of the 20th Corps was there a short time before it was “pulled out and sent around to the north end of the battlefield to help repel the Confederate attack on the afternoon of the 14th.” The regiment fought through the end of the Atlanta Campaign and was in combat in South Carolina and North Carolina at war's end.

Carlin’s brigade within the 14th Corps was in that part of the field much of the day. 

There are impressive accounts of the 21st  Wisconsin Infantry, which had recruits from the Oneida tribe, according to Patton.

The Federal assault on the Confederate right-center (Cleburne, Bate and Hindman) petered out around 3 p.m., “having achieved nothing but casualties,” according to the American Battlefield Trust.

Fighting continued the next day but the battle proved to be inconclusive.

There was one result: The South’s Joseph E. Johnston was forced to retreat from the field due to a wide flanking maneuver by William T. Sherman.

Resaca Battlefield Historic Site in Gordon County contains significant remnants of Rebel earthworks, including an impressive length of trenches visible on the Red Battlefield Trail (Signs point out metal detectors are banned and artifacts cannot be removed).

Patton said a witness tree on the Blue Battlefield Trail survives.

Northwest Georgia is replete with Civil War sites, and the Resaca area includes the park, a Confederate cemetery in the town, Fort Wayne and an annual battle reenactment on a separate property.

“The attendance is great by both local recreation users and history buffs alike,” Padgett said of the historic site a few years back. “We have hosted many tour groups from around the South and had many national visitors.”

(Note: To see where the witness tree was located at Resaca Battlefield Historic Site, click the map and see the red arrow west of River Battlefield Trail)

Witness trees still can be found in many Civil War battlefields, including Gettysburg and Manassas, where the park suggests soldiers got under the leaves for shade or rested by leaning on a trunk.

The National Park Service also has a protection program at historic sites in the Washington, D.C., area, including the White House and National Mall.

The witness flora “provide essential context and markers on battlefields, allowing us to better identify where parts of chaotic battles occurred,” says the American Battlefield Trust. “The trees, like the land we save, have seen things we cannot imagine, and bear the marks of those events.

Patton puts the situation at Resaca succinctly:

It's very tragic that another piece of history is gone.”

Saturday, November 18, 2023

Archaeologists found 500 Civil War items, including cannonballs, during tar cleanup in Columbia, S.C., river. Here's some of what they found in 'literal war zone'

Grapeshot, canister, 6-pound round (Photos courtesy of Sean Norris, TRC, 2023)
Some of the captured weapons and ammunition that Union Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s troops dumped into the Congaree River in Columbia, S.C., in the last months of the Civil War reemerged during a recent environmental project that removed tar from the riverbed.

Hundreds of Civil War artifacts have been recovered, including cannonballs, canister, remnants of a saber and wagon wheel and dozens of bullets. In February 1865, Sherman’s men threw Confederate war materiel into the river after they took what they wanted before marching to North Carolina.

Much of the South Carolina capital went up in flames after the city's surrender.

State, local and Dominion Energy this week announced the completion of the work. Tests showed the material found near downtown in 2010 was coal tar created by manufactured gas plants that operated throughout Columbia more than century ago.

Starting in June 2022, crews installed cofferdams and dewatering pumps at two so they could work on a dry riverbed. Dominion Energy said. Some 35,000 tons of sediment was removed.

The Civil War Picket reached out to Sean Norris, program archaeologist for TRC Companies, a subcontractor for Dominion Energy that performed archaeological work. His responses have been edited and some questions have been reordered.

Q. Were all of the artifacts recovered since June 2022? Were they found in a particular area, or were they scattered?

A. A small amount of ordnance was recovered during the early phases of this project as far back as 2015. The vast majority of the ordnance was recovered this year. (Photo above of some artifacts courtesy of Sean Norris, TRC, 2023.)

Q.  Can you give me an approximate number of Civil War artifacts recovered?

 A. We anticipate close to 500 pieces of ordnance and Civil War-related artifacts, in addition to thousands of historic and pre-contact period artifacts.

Q. Can you please provide some specifics on the Civil War items? 

A. We do not have a finalized inventory yet. But of note, we have the following:

-- 10” shells (right) with fuse wells for wood fuse plug (photo courtesy of Sean Norris, TRC)-- Iron canister balls (five sizes)

-- Iron grapeshot balls, 2,”

-- Iron canister top and bottom plates for 24-pounder

-- 6-pounder solid shot cannon balls (one with a Bormann fuse)

-- 12-pounder common shells with wood fuse plugs

-- .69-caliber musket balls

-- .69-caliber Burton pattern Minie bullet

-- .577/58-caliber Pritchett bullet

-- .577/.58-caliber Pritchett bullets, short pattern

--  An encrusted saber is currently going through some stabilization and cleaning. 

Q. Are all of the Civil War items dumped in the river believed to be Confederate? Were they tossed in by Sherman's troops?

A. All the ordnance appears to be from the Confederate armories around the downtown area. None appear to have been fired.

Q. How deep were most of the artifacts when found?

A. All were found in the riverbed after it was dewaters.  Some were up to three feet deep in sediment.

Q. Can you tell me about parts of a wagon wheel, what makes that particularly interesting?

Burning of Columbia in Feb. 1865 (William Waud, Library of Congress)
A. There are reports in the records and in diaries of an explosion happening during the dumping of the ordnance. The explosion apparently blew up a wagon and oxen team and three federal soldiers, including Capt. Williamson M. Davis, who is buried in the Florence, S.C. national cemetery. The wagon wheel matches the size and characteristics of a military wagon; there is evidence of charring on the spokes of the wheel. It is possible that this wheel is an artifact of that explosion. 

Q. Did work crews find an unexploded shell of some type?

A. We had UXO team from a company named Tetra Tech on site at all times. They did an amazing job of doing the initial recovery and establishing safety protocols.  When fused ordnance was recovered they implemented protocols to render the ordnance safe for removal then transferred the ordnance for off-site disposal.

Q. Were you there for most or all of the archaeological work? Was it also done by Dominion Energy contractors? 

A. We were contracted through Dominion Energy. They have been great advocates for recovering and preserving these artifacts since the archaeological work for this project began years ago.

(Archaeological work at left. Photo courtesy of Sean Norris, TRC, 2023.)

Q. Will these items go to the South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum? If so when?

A. Artifacts are undergoing analysis and the conservation process. It will likely be 18 months to two years before they are ready for display at the Relic Room. (The Picket has reached out to the museum for comment.)

The wagon wheel is currently submerged in a conservation tank at the Confederate Relic Room. The wood spokes started decaying as soon as it was removed from the water and exposed to oxygen. 

A view of the work over the summer (SC Dept. of Health and Environmental Control)
Q. Any particular moments of discovery that stand out to you, especially ones in which you were a part?

A. Lifting the 10-inch cannonballs was a highlight. Holding these artifacts and realizing that almost 160 years ago the place I was standing was a literal war zone was a sobering moment.

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

Home destroyed in fire at Stone Mountain Park was built for man who served in Confederate cavalry. Officials have ruled out arson

Center of the home goes up in flames (Stone Mtn Park Dept. of Public Safety)
(Updated Nov. 18) -- A Confederate colonel's lavish manor home, which a century later became the centerpiece of a recreated antebellum plantation at Stone Mountain Park outside Atlanta, went up in flames early Tuesday .

“It appears at this point to be a total loss. The fire was concentrated in the center and upper portions of the home,” John Bankhead, park police spokesman, told the Picket in an email.

Bankhead said in an email two days later that tests on fire debris and other evidence collected at the Davis-Dickey house led the state fire marshal's office to determine "that an electrical fault in conduit near the entrance to the home was the cause of the fire and not arson."


The Davis-Dickey home
is among a collection of relocated antebellum structures in the park’s Historic Square. The residence was built in the community of Dickey, west of Albany, Ga., for the family of Charles Milton Davis, who left Aiken, S.C., in 1850.

The house -- which won praise for its architecture and antiques -- faces the park's famous Confederate memorial carving at Stone Mountain Park and has been the object of critics who believe the complex and some other park features send the wrong message in today's world.

The home was completed in about 1856. Davis, a cotton planter, was the third-largest slaveholder in Calhoun County with 78 enslaved persons. He owned about 3,500 acres, according to census records. Charles and his wife Agnes lived there with seven children.

Davis served as a colonel in the Calhoun County cavalry. Other websites indicated he served as well in the 12th Battalion Georgia Cavalry and the 10th Georgia State Troops. All of the units appeared to be stationed in Georgia.

A marker outside the 14-room home says the colonel was made to sign the oath of allegiance to the United States after the war. The family moved to Apopka, Fla., in the 1870s and raised oranges. Davis died in 1902 at age 79.

Stone Mountain rises behind the home before the fire (Jason Armstrong, HMdb.org)
The residence remained in the family until it was moved to Stone Mountain Park in 1961 to be the centerpiece of the attraction.

The home was in poor condition when it traveled 200 miles, according to the Society of Architectural Historians.

After it was restored and filled with original and period furnishings, the residence opened to Stone Mountain Park visitors in 1963 as a largely privately operated venture. A visit to the park this week shows the complex to be showing its age. 

It was considered the "big house" at the complex, which included other homes, outbuildings and two slave dwellings. The area was promoted as both history and entertainment and actress Butterfly McQueen, featured in the film "Gone With the Wind," was hired to appear at the plantation site. She left the park in 1965.

A tarp covers the home and a fence was erected (Picket photo)
Stone Mountain Park's website says
Each structure was moved from its original site and carefully restored to preserve its authenticity and historical value. Take a self-guided tour and enjoy the sights and smells of the working cookhouse and garden. This fascinating area also houses the most extensive collection of period furniture and decorations in the south, reflecting the diverse lifestyles of 18th and 19th century Georgia residents."

It says the home is “an excellent example of neoclassical architecture.”

Stone Mountain Park in recent years has been under pressure to remove features, street names or exhibits that depict what critics and scholars call symbols of the Lost Cause and white supremacy. The Stone Mountain Memorial Association has pledged to make changes, but some say the pace has been too slow. The park this year relocated four Confederate flags that were next to a popular trail.

Road to Historic Square was closed for a few days (Picket photo)
Scholars and historians say the attraction tried to approximate Tara, while minimizing the horrors of slavery.

Gordon Jones, senior military historian at the Atlanta History Center, 25 years ago said: “In short, the Stone Mountain Park which emerged in the 1960s comprised a comical orgy of Lost Cause, Old South, and even Western movie clich├ęs, clearly removed from the more serious and hateful Ku Klux Klan past, but also clearly rooted in it.”

Architectural historian Lydia Mattice Brandt and associate professor of history Philip Mills Herrington, writing in the March 2022 Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, detailed the history, timeline and goals of the antebellum plantation now known as Historic Square.

They write that the plantation complex buttressed Georgia’s resistance to desegregation in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and it was mixture of fact and fantasy.

“That seeming authenticity coincided with the well-worn tropes of Lost Cause storytelling, marginalizing the history of slavery and the enslaved while depicting White consumption as virtuous and White pleasure as paramount. The plantation, past and present, was an amusement park.”

The authors suggest a reinterpretation of the square is critically important. (Click photo at left for a rendering of Historic Square.)

“The site provides an exceptional opportunity for visitors to question how their own experiences, education, consumption, and assumptions also perpetuate the Old South myth.”

The Picket reached out to the Stone Mountain Memorial Association for comment on the current role and possible future of Historic Square, which remained closed after the fire.

It's too early to say what might happen to what's left of the Davis-Dickey residence.

Even though the structure suffered extensive fire and water damage, it’s possible some belongings can be saved. As for the possibility of rebuilding, Bankhead said: “Not sure at this point. The left and right sides were not as damaged, but the center is destroyed.”

Friday, November 3, 2023

New marker on Hilton Head Island pays tribute to Black regiment that helped build Fort Howell to protect freedmen

Marker is unveiled at Fort Howell entrance (town of Hilton Head Island)
A new marker on Hilton Head Island, SC., highlights the role of the 32nd U.S. Colored Infantry in the construction of Fort Howell, built to defend Mitchelville, a village populated by formerly enslaved people during the Civil War.

“This is a great day for Hilton Head Island because it shines a light on a piece of our past that needed to be explained more in depth and needed to be spotlighted properly,” Mayor Alan Perry said in prepared remarks for Wednesday’s ceremony at the well-preserved site. 

Much of coastal South Carolina fells into Union hands relatively early in the war and the Federal army needed to create camps for tens of thousands of newly freed families.

Mitchelville was the first such community in the area. (At left, a photo at Fort Howell of a metal figure depicting a 32nd USCT sergeant, courtesy of Hilton Head Island Land Trust)

While a previous sign at the well-preserved Fort Howell declared the earthen fortification's purpose and for whom it was named, the new marker lists the 32nd USCT and the 144th New York infantry as its builders in the latter half of 1864.

The army wanted to thwart any Confederate raids on Mitchelville. A large military encampment called Camp Baird was built near the fort.

The town worked with the Hilton Head Island Land Trust, which owns and maintains the site, and the South Carolina Department of Archives and History to create the new marker. 

George Banino, president of the land trust’s board, told the Picket the marker was changed in response to comments, especially the Gullah community, about telling the human story. 

“As the location of the U.S. headquarters for the Union's Department of the South from six months after the start of the war until a year after the end of the war, Hilton Head Island has an important history to tell,” Banino said.  

Bridge at entrance crosses remains of moat (Wikipedia photo)

Perry said the new marker "conveys a single cohesive narrative of our history."

The Picket also reached out to Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park for comment.

Historical records show 500 officers and men from the 32nd USCT worked a few months to create the 3-acre Fort Howell. It was designed to be manned by artillerymen and as many as 27 large weapons, according to a news release from the town.

New marker at left replaced one at right. (Town of Hilton Head and Mike Sroud, HMdb.org)
USCT members faced discrimination within the U.S. Army and were not recognized as soldiers by the Confederacy, which threatened to execute or return them to slavery.

More than 180,000 men served in the USCT, about 10% of all Federal soldiers. More than 40,000 died of combat, illness and disease.

The post is named for Union Brig. Gen. Joshua B. Howell, who died in September 1864 after falling from his horse in Virginia.

Plan for the five-sided Fort Howell (National Archives)
Though Fort Howell never saw action, it is significant for its design and its structural integrity. It was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2011, according to the Historical Marker Database. 

“The fort, an essentially pentagonal enclosure constructed of built-up earth, is quite discernible despite natural erosion and the growth of trees and other vegetation,” says HMdb.org.

Fort Howell is the best-preserved earthen Civil War fort in South Carolina, although erosion has taken away some fine features, the trust says.

Rendering of what the fort, surroundings may have looked like
 (Mary Ann Browning Ford for Hilton Head Island Land Trust)
Over the past 10 years or so, the park has been transformed from a site containing some low earthen mounds covered by dense vegetation to a learning center for all visitors, Banino said. Improvements include extensive signage and walking paths.

“A large portion of the vegetation has been removed to enable visitors to view the structure of the fort, although enough vegetation has been retained to provide protection from continued erosion,” he said.

Exterior wall of fort across from moat (Hilton Head Island Land Trust)
Fort Howell, at 160 Beach City Road near the island’s airport, is open to the public with adjacent areas for parking. It has several interpretive signs and metal figures represent soldiers and others. It is open from dawn to dusk, according to the trust.

The town says Fort Howell is a key site on the National Park Service's Network to Freedom, which encompasses the Underground Railroad and the Civil War Discovery Trail.