Monday, November 16, 2015

Enfield rifles recovered in shipwreck stay on display, await long-term conservation

Recent photo of the rifle crate. Water will be changed soon.
(Georgia State Parks)

An unusual display greets campers, hikers, boaters and Civil War aficionados who venture into the visitor center at Georgia’s Sweetwater Creek State Park west of Atlanta.

The curious skim through the text of wall panels to learn more about the jumble of wood and corroded metal resting in the middle of a large freshwater tank.

The carefully constructed box of British-made rifles was intended for the hands of Confederate soldiers. But they never made it ashore in Charleston, S.C. The CSS Stono, a blockade runner laden with precious arms, munitions and goods from Europe, in 1863 ran aground on a submerged sandbar off Fort Moultrie while trying to evade Federal ships.

This rare crate of 20 Enfield rifles remains in “suspension” until funding is procured for their permanent conservation so that they can be displayed outside a water environment at Fort McAllister State Park near Savannah.

(Georgia State Parks)

The Picket first spoke about the Pattern 1853 Enfield rifle-muskets with Josh Headlee, senior preservation technician with the state’s Historic Preservation Division, in December 2013. That post ranks in the top five of the most-popular articles on this blog.

One of the challenges that we face now is coming up with a way to support the crate without causing further damage to it,” Headlee recently said. “The lining of the crate … is made up of a tin composite material.  This tin is quite malleable now, given that it has rested in saltwater and now freshwater for over 150 years.  In essence the weight of the stack of rifles is wanting to fall down and burst open what is left of the crate.”

The technician said he plans in the next six months to install a brace to disrupt further degradation of the metal lining.

Over time, the freshwater tank environment has helped draw out salt and other contaminants.

“Most of the sodium chlorides are out of the water,” said Headlee. “Most of the metal parts of the rifles are gone. What is left we don’t want to corrode. We have fragments of barrels and locks.”

Rifles are placed in tank in 2013

Water was changed about once a week when the salt levels were especially high. But, over time, the interval has changed to about every six months.

Headlee says he and others are surprised at how intact the walnut stocks appear to be. Weapons found in other saltwater environments haven’t fared so well. “I wondered if the rifles weren’t wrapped in oil cloth before they were crated up, and that helped preserve them.”

Brass components, including butt plates, trigger guards and the nose cap at the end of the barrels better withstood the ravages of longtime submersion. Researchers also found a bullet mold, tools and tampions, or cork and brass plugs inserted into the muzzle to ward off moisture.

Three of the tampions found with rifles (Ga. DNR)

The CSS Stono was previously known as the USS Isaac Smith, a steamer that saw Federal service before its capture by Confederate land forces.

Some of the CSS Stono’s contents were retrieved by the South, but others, including the crate of Enfields, could not be salvaged, apparently because they were below the water line. In 1865, the “stuck” ship was burned to prevent it from falling into the hands of Federal troops.

An archaeological diver pulled up the crate from the shipwreck in the late 1980s. The Georgia Department of Natural Resources acquired the guns from South Carolina. 

Headlee said he expects conservation of the rifles could run into the tens of thousands of dollars. An outside contractor could guide the department in an appropriate technique, perhaps by freeze-drying the material to remove moisture without causing further damage.

Typical Pattern 1853 Enfield (NPS)

“They are on the radar screen and (officials) are well aware of the fact that as long as they are in the water and monitored and are being taken care of, the status quo is OK for now. And they are available to the public.”

There is no timetable for the conservation.

Fort McAllister is a suitable permanent home, Headlee says, because of its focus on Southern blockade runners. The site has a display on the CSS Nashville, a vessel that was destroyed nearby by Union forces in early 1863.

The rifles have been on display for two years. Visitors to Sweetwater Creek State Park often walk down to the ruins of the New Manchester mill, which produced textiles for the Confederacy before it was burned by Union troops in 1864.

1 comment:

  1. A similar crate of guns was recently found off the coast of Newfoundland and is being conserved at Memorial University of Newfoundland. See the bottom of this post.