Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Divers in Savannah are checking out "cribs" -- underwater obstructions placed by Confederates defending the city from sea attack

Sonar image of four Confederate cribs in Savannah River (USACE, Savannah)
Archaeologists using sonar to scan the bottom of the Savannah River have located the remnants of four underwater obstructions placed by Confederate defenders during the Civil War.

The U.S. Army Corp of Engineer’s Savannah office last week released a video and press release on the discovery of the so-called cribs, which were intended to prevent a Federal attack on the Georgia city.

“A crib is actually the wooden structure that would have held rubble, in this case mostly bricks,” Will Wilson, an archaeologist with Commonwealth Heritage Group said in the video. 

“This is a fairly simple frame system that is (put) in place really to hold the rubble and provide an obstruction to ships that might want to pass up the river.”

Wilson and others recorded 3D images ahead of dives on two of the crib sites. The dives are underway, Corps officials said this week.

While tourists coming to the popular coastal destination gaze upon the supertankers coming from or to the Atlantic Ocean, they likely have no idea what lies beneath the river's surface: Remnants of vessels, pieces of Native American pottery that washed down stream, and other items deposited over the centuries.

The Corps began new fact finding and artifacts recovery in the past couple weeks. (The recent photo above shows diver James Duff holding a bar shot, a form of artillery used against ships during the Revolutionary War.)

The project follows the discovery earlier this year of three historic artillery pieces in the river. (Photo below, USACE Savannah)

The cannons appear to have been made in the mid-1700s, and some theorize they may have been carried by the HMS Rose, a British warship that took part in the siege of Savannah during the Revolutionary War.

The Rose was scuttled to block the channel from French ships that might come to the aid of colonists trying to retake the city.

“A definitive conclusion on their origins is still pending and may require future conservation efforts to study any identifying marks that may tie the artifacts to a specific vessel or wreck,” the Corps said.

It’s possible the artillery pieces were on a Confederate warship, such as the CSS Georgia, which was used in conjunction with cribs to defend the city.

The cannons were found this past February in the general vicinity of where the Rebel ironclad was scuttled in December 1864 during the Civil War. Most of the ironclad’s wreckage was removed a few years back as part of the Corps’ deepening of the Savannah harbor.

The ironclad itself was an obstruction: Too slow to travel downstream and engage the enemy, the CSS Georgia was a floating battery stationed near Fort Jackson, another defensive bastion a few miles east of downtown. 

Smaller batteries dotted the river banks toward Fort Pulaski, near Tybee Island. The fort fell to Union forces in 1862 and the city was effectively bottled up for the remainder of the conflict.

In its press release, the Corps said investigators this spring “found additional artifacts related to the cannons on the river bottom. The exact number and types of artifacts remaining in the Savannah River will be determined through the current and upcoming investigations, and these materials will be recovered for further study.”

Corps spokesman Billy Birdwell told the Picket on Tuesday that the crib dives and artifact recovery are part of necessary clearing for ongoing deepening of the harbor.

He said divers are working in an area filled with all kinds of debris, from before and after the Civil War. A photo shows what appears to be a Revolutionary War-era artifact.

Dozens of cribs were placed in the river during the Civil War.

Click map to see Fort Jackson, area of placed cribs (Library of Congress)
The Confederacy used a wide array of weapons and obstructions to defend against advances on Savannah from the sea. Besides forts and warships, wooden cribs, pile dams, torpedoes (mines), snags, logs and dozens of shipwrecks were employed.

A 2007 report by New South Associates on the CSS Georgia said the ironclad was situated to protect obstructions from Federal wrecking parties.

The obstructions themselves were double-lines of sunken structures, comprised of cribs put together with 18 to 20-inch timbers, and loaded with bricks. Except for a small opening to allow Confederate patrol boats to go in and out, these obstructions stretched across the navigable width of the river. In the south channel, these cribs were reported to have a height of 30 to 35 feet,” the report says.

Shore batteries supported Fort Jackson.

Confederate torpedoes in Charleston at war's end (Library of Congress)
“There were two lines of obstructions in the vicinity of Fort Jackson. The line furthest downstream, on either side of the head of Elba Island, appears to have been Georgia’s first home,” New South Associates said. “A more irregular line of obstructions was also laid in the immediate vicinity of Fort Jackson, upstream from the first line. This line too appears to have had moorings for Georgia.”

Wilson, the archaeologist speaking in the Corps video, said the cribs being investigated now are north of the river channel, a bit outside of freighter traffic.

An 1865 map in the collection of the Library of Congress (above) shows a narrow waterway labeled “obstructed by cribs” not far from CSS Georgia and Fort Jackson. The river’s flow has changed since then and some land that appeared in the map is now underwater. It is unclear exactly where these cribs being studied by the Corps were discovered.

Will Wilson and Jeffrey Pardee during a recent dive trip (USACE, Savannah)
A map by Robert Knox Sneden, a renowned Union mapmaker, shows Southern batteries and obstructions all the way to Fort Pulaski. (below, click to enlarge)

An 1874 account of the fortifications in and around Savannah includes this description:

“The guns in these positions were supplied with an average of rather more than one hundred rounds of ammunition to the piece. As additional obstructions to an ascent of the Savannah river by the enemy, cribs, filled with brick and stone, had been sunk in the channel below the forts and under cover of their guns. Below the Thunderbolt battery the river was impeded by quantities of live oak logs.”

All of these defensive weapons did the trick: Savannah did not succumb to the Federal navy. Instead, it fell to the Union army during Sherman’s March to the Sea.

After the war, contractors were hired to raise obstructions, including cribs, sunken vessels, piles, snags and torpedoes, so that commercial traffic could safely resume. They even got part of the CSS Georgia. (Interestingly, there were complaints during the Civil War of obstructions left over from the Revolutionary War).

W. Todd Groce, president and CEO of the Georgia Historical Society, told the Picket a friend in 1996 discovered a Confederate torpedo buried in the mud along the river and downstream from the city.

“It was one of the old wooden barrel types. He excavated it and kept it in a big tub of water so it would not dry out and disintegrate.” The man wanted to donate it to the society, but it did not have proper facilities to care for and display it, Groce said.

Stay tuned to the Picket for an update on this project.

“These submerged crib obstructions are believed to be some of the last remaining examples of this type of obstruction placed in the Savannah River during the Civil War,” the Corps said.

Related: Divers find more cannons in Savannah River. Click here

Sunday, October 24, 2021

Tennessee city honors US Colored Troops with statue

For the first time in Franklin, Tenn., history, a statue now stands on the historic square honoring the Black enslaved men who enlisted in the U.S. Colored Troops, a segregated part of the Union Army during the Civil War. The statue was unveiled Saturday during an emotional ceremony commemorating the troops and their sacrifices. They fought not only for their individual freedoms, but for those millions of enslaved men, women and children across the nation. -- Article

Monday, October 18, 2021

The Enfield rifles and the mystery coffin: How these fascinating wooden artifacts are being protected for future generations

Below, the coffin where is was spotted, under orange bucket (Georgia DNR)

Come read the adventure of
one coffin, 20 rifles and two caretakers of Georgia history.

Our story begins in the 1980s. An archaeological diver in Charleston (S.C.) Harbor pulls up a crate of British-made Enfield rifles lost when a Rebel blockade runner ran aground in 1863.

The next chapter takes place in 2013. A state park employee on routine patrol spies the edge of the intact coffin jutting out of muck and sand on the marsh’s edge near Fort McAllister, a Confederate river outpost below Savannah, Ga.

Why mention seemingly unrelated artifacts? Let’s bring in the caretakers to weave them together.

Josh Headlee, a curator/historic preservation specialist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, has for several years worked to ensure the rifles carried by the CSS Stono are on the path to permanent conservation.

They are at Sweetwater Creek State Park outside Atlanta in a freshwater tank, which is drawing out salt and other contaminants (2013 photo of installation of tank).

State archaeologist Rachel Black has studied the mystery of the empty coffin, which also went into a water tank after discovery. Did it contain the body of a Civil War soldier or a slave? Perhaps someone else? Or was it simply discarded?

Headlee and Black hope that the rifles and the coffin eventually will go on public display. But the waterlogged wood has to be preserved. Without such chemical treatment, pieces of wood taken out of water will shrink, warp and crack. “They could literally just fall apart,” Headlee said.

This is where the latest chapter begins. Before using a wood treatment on the rare rifles, Headlee wanted to test it on something else more than a century old. He and Black decided to try the preserver on an end piece of the coffin.

“It has done a tremendous job,” Headlee told the Picket. “We need something to replace what (wood) is missing. The preserver we use soaks into wood, displaces the water and basically solidifies itself.”

Over the past year, Headlee has used the SP-11 treatment made by Preservation Solutions on much of the plain coffin, which was handcrafted from several pieces. He is conserving the artifact at a DNR lab at Panola Mountain State Park. (at right, solution is applied on a long piece of the coffin; photo courtesy of Historic Preservation Division, Georgia DNR.)

“I’m currently working on the largest piece of the coffin.  It’s a beautiful piece that makes up approximately 2/3 of the bottom of the coffin and so it has a great angled ‘typical’ coffin shape to it,” he wrote in a recent email. “The piece after this one will be the last piece of the coffin and it is essentially the remaining third of the bottom.  If all goes well with it, it should be finished by the end of the year. All the pieces seem to be holding up pretty well coming out of treatment.”

Headlee hopes to wrap up conservation of the coffin by the end of the year.

While SP-11 has worked well as a composite for the coffin, likely made of pine, Headlee is mindful that the rifles probably have walnut stocks.

“Hopefully, next year we can begin treatment of the rifles in the crate at Sweetwater Creek SP. I expect that their treatment will likely take longer per piece simply because of the amount of metal (brass and iron) on them and the wood being more dense,” he says.

Rifles at Sweetwater Creek (Courtesy Historic Preservation Division, Georgia DNR)
Although the iron rifle barrels, locks and bayonets of the Pattern 53 Enfields are heavily deteriorated from saltwater corrosion, the stocks are in great shape.

“It (is) a once in a lifetime thing,” Headlee, said in 2013 of the rare opportunity to conserve and study a case of Enfields. Only three intact cases of the single-shot weapon are known, according to a 2007 Atlanta Journal-Constitution article.

Builder put care into wooden coffin

Black and Headlee have taken note of the craftsmanship that went into the coffin, which appears to have remnants of decorative motifs. The nails used to fasten the pieces are gone.

In 2016, when the Picket first spoke with Black, she could see square nail holes in the wood (photo at left, courtesy of Historic Preservation Division).

“I also could see some faint shadows on the sideboards, rusty spots near the holes,” she said this year. There is evidence of tacks. Black believes they may have fastened deteriorated decorative ornaments shaped like diamonds. “A very poor individual could have purchased (such accoutrements) to make their coffin more decorative.”

Based on the use of cut nails, the coffin likely was built prior to 1890, said Black. The rectangular casket became far more prevalent by the turn of the 20th century.

 Archaeologists also discovered a small hole on each of the side panels, perhaps drilled so that a rope could be used to lower the coffin.

The box was about 68 inches long and could have accommodated a person about 5 feet, 6 inches, a common height for a man in the mid-19th century. It was oriented with the head to the west, customary in many Christian burials.

Interestingly, the bottom of the “toe pincher” style coffin was made from two pieces. One is thicker than the other, so the head plate on one was made even by the coffin maker, who likely used a hand plane tool. That’s evidence of someone who had experience in working with wood.

The condition of the coffin when it was discovered along the Ogeechee River was considered outstanding. Water seeped into the wood and its being covered by soil in an anaerobic environment helped it maintain its condition.

The elements were not so kind to fasteners, nails and possible decorative items.

“They most likely rusted away, especially in the wet environment,” Black says.

'Throwing darts in the wind'

Black has looked at a range of possibilities of why the coffin was buried or left in the marsh:

-- Did the box once hold the remains of an enslaved person? Fort McAllister State Park sits on Genesis Point, once home to a large rice plantation. There’s a known slave cemetery to the west near Strathy Hall, which was built in the 18th century.

-- Could this have been a burial for a Confederate soldier or sailor, or perhaps a Union soldier stationed there after the fort fell in December 1864 during Sherman’s March to the Sea?

-- Or was the coffin discarded and never used? Black believes that is unlikely, given the expense of applying decorative elements.

If the coffin was in the specific or general area of an interment, the environment likely changed over 150 years. It may have once been on high and dry land. The banks of the Ogeechee River at Genesis Point are eroding rapidly for several reasons, including increased river traffic.

Black hasn't been able to make a conclusion about the coffin's origin and possible use, though some of the construction techniques have a style common in shipbuilding.

When it comes to figuring out the coffin’s story, it “is kind of throwing darts in the wind,” says the archaeologist. (treated piece of coffin above right)

Troops at Fort McAllister battled monotony and Union naval forces for three years, finally falling to Federal land troops.

Among the Rebel units stationed at Fort McAllister was the local Republican Blues. A member of the Blues in 1863 drew a map of the fort and showed the McAllister plantation on the western edge. It’s not clear whether that location is accurate.

Black has said that records indicate an abundance of plantation activities were in the area of the coffin. In many cases, slave cemeteries are unmarked “and are lost over time.”

There may have been a cemetery on Genesis Point, but no evidence of one has been found.  Since only the single coffin has been found, that has led the archaeologist to believe it could be more likely associated with the Civil War fort.

In his book “Guardian of Savannah,” Roger S. Durham includes an account of a burial written by William Dixon of the Republican Blues.

“Sunday 6th [March] 1864 … The Emmett Rifles arrived here this morning … Priv Murphy of that company died on board of the boat last night. He complained yesterday of feeling unwell but nothing was thought of it and this morning he was found dead. He was buried here this afternoon.”

The mystery of the coffin continues. And that’s where our story ends – for now.

                                                      (Courtesy of Historic Preservation Division, Georgia DNR)

Saturday, October 16, 2021

Portrait of Black Civil War hero finally put on display in S.C.

A portrait of a Black Reconstruction-era state senator and Civil War hero sat in a South Carolina Statehouse closet for 13 years before finally being put on display Thursday in the Senate chamber without a public ceremony.

Stephen Atkins Swails enlisted with the 54th Massachusetts Infantry. From the blood-soaked sands of Morris Island during the Union assault on Fort Wagner near Charleston, Swails became the first black U.S. Army officer. After the war, he had a political career in South Carolina under difficult conditions.  – Article

Monday, October 4, 2021

Who is this mystery woman buried with spouses of Union veterans?

Local history groups have placed new headstones in a Traverse City, Mich., cemetery to honor eight people from the Civil War era. But who was Nancy Taylor? The groups have identified three women who were married to Union veterans and buried in a special area at Oakwood Cemetery. But the background of Taylor, who is buried among them, isn't clear. She died in 1918. -- Article

Sunday, October 3, 2021

Hurricane Ida left a calling card at Pensacola Bay in Florida. 194 cannonballs were uncovered along beach near Civil War Fort McRee

Shells were found Sept. 3-5 and 21-23 (Gulf Islands National Seashore)
Fort McRee did not resemble most other coastal fortifications erected in the U.S. after the War of 1812. The fort was shaped somewhat like a wing or boomerang so that it could be squeezed onto a narrow barrier island separating Florida’s Pensacola Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.

McRee’s brief moment of fame – until last month – came in November 1861, when it was in Confederate hands during the Civil War. The garrison engaged in gunfire with nearby Union-held Fort Pickens and a couple warships -- and came up on the losing end. The heavily damaged brick fort, built on sand, was abandoned, only to fall into further ruin over the years.

Inaccessible by road, McRee’s main visitors are sea birds, boaters and beachgoers who come to Gulf Islands National Seashore. The park is home to McRee, Pickens and Fort Barrancas, another Civil War outpost.

Soldiers at Fort McRee, year unknown (Gulf Islands National Seashore)
Category 4 Hurricane Ida -- bringing heavy rain and wind -- paid its own visit in late August, and its impact left quite a surprise: Days later and over three weeks, park staff discovered 194 Civil War-era cannonballs, deposited in a couple clusters along the beach.

The shells weighed between 25 and 35 pounds and are believed to be of the same type, park public information officer Susan Teel told the Civil War Picket in an email. They are hollow, potentially black powder filled cannonballs considered discarded military munitions.”

Experts from the Air Force’s Hurlburt Field (below) detonated the artillery shells on site, officials said.

“What’s unclear is whether they are Union or Confederate, whether they were associated with Fort McRee or another type of facility,” GUIS Superintendent Darrell Echols told TV station WKRG.

It appears the cannonballs had been discarded or buried; that may be determined in coming weeks during a cultural resource survey of the find. 

Erosion regularly occurs on these barrier islands and park officials say the ordnance was likely placed in a spot that was inland at the time. Echols told WEAR-TV the artifacts do not appear to have been fired upon the island.

The park has closed a portion of the beach on the Perdido Key Area’s southeastern end, at the Fort McRee site, and is monitoring it should more ordnance appear.

“Our goal is to ensure that the area is safe for the public and staff and that cultural resources are protected,” Teel said late last week. “In an abundance of caution, the park has closed the area surrounding where the cannonballs were located. This closure is signed and visitors walking or boating in this area are prohibited from entering. Staff will be monitoring and patrolling the area regularly.

A park news release says it is illegal for the public to handle, deface or remove such artifacts.

Cannonballs likely were further inland during the Civil War (GUIS)
This is not the first time a storm uncovered Civil War munitions. For example, 2019’s Hurricane Dorian revealed two cannonballs on South Carolina’s Folly Beach.

In almost all cases, military or local emergency services employees destroy discovered ordnance because of the potential for them to explode. On some occasions, they are defused or found not to still contain harmful material.

Asked whether a discussion was held on whether the rounds could be saved, Teel wrote: “As a federal agency, we have arrangements with the military to detonate munitions or unexploded ordinance found in the park. Munitions have been found in national parks across the USA and the military has assisted the National Park Service to successfully mitigate the danger these munitions may pose to the public and staff.

Teel said if someone comes across munitions, they should not disturb the items. They should leave the area and contact local emergency services, she said.

A Virginia relic collector died in 2008 when a cannonball he was restoring exploded.

(Wikipedia Commons)
McRee had 12 casemates and an associated water battery, which may be underwater today. Virtually nothing remains today, with the exception of part of the fort's foundation. (After the Picket posted this article on social media, a few readers commented they believe the ordnance was made for a 32-pounder cannon.)

A GUIS web page details its history and service. The federal government built the fort in the 1830s at part of defenses of Pensacola Bay and a naval yard. Interestingly, Fort Pickens was one of the few forts in the South that remained in Union hands throughout the Civil War.

McRee was seized by state militia in early 1861 and guns were mounted by Confederate troops. On Nov. 22, 1861, Pickens opened fire on shore batteries, the navy yard and McRee and Barrancas.

“Under heavy artillery fire, Fort McRee was exposed to severe bombardment at its front, flank, and rear,” the park service says. “Two Union warships, U.S.S. Niagara and U.S.S. Richmond joined the bombardment of Fort McRee. This massive artillery exchange shook houses ten miles away and concussion-stunned fish which floated to the surface of the bay.” Confederate guns were able to damage one of the Federal warships.

But damage to the fort and its vulnerability put it out of action for the next day.

Rebel forces abandoned the outpost by March 1862.

“The once imposing fortification had been reduced to a burned-out and fragmented brick shell. Essentially abandoned after the Civil War, the toll of warfare and of the elements continued to take Fort McRee into further ruin,” according to the website. “By the early 1900s, what little was left of this once imposing defensive structure was rapidly crumbling. Today, nothing visible remains of this Third System fortification, although later coastal defense structures built in the area are commonly referred to as old Fort McRee.”

A battery was built near the old fort about the time of the Spanish-American War and it had guns during World War II. It was deactivated shortly after the war ended.

Aerial view of a battery on island in 1928 (National Archives

The region during the Civil War (Wikipedia Commons)