Thursday, June 13, 2024

Until these Civil War Enfield rifles are conserved, they will stay in an aquarium tank at a Georgia state park. Here's how specialists gently clean the exhibit

DNR team removes water and gently cleans Enfield rifles (Danielle Grau/Sweetwater Creek State Park)
Items you might find in a garage or utility shed turn out to be handy tools when protecting precious artifacts that help tell the story of the Civil War.

A team with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources this week used a garden hose, small pump, spray nozzle and a wet-dry vacuum to clean and refill a 300-gallon aquarium tank that holds -- of all things -- 18 Pattern 1853 Enfield rifles.

Josh Headlee, curator and historic preservation specialist with the DNR, has done the task a couple times a year since 2013. He travels to Sweetwater Creek State Park in Douglas County, Ga., west of Atlanta. (Surprised visitors to the museum there ask where the weapons were found and why they are in water, says park clerk Danielle Grau.)

The water is siphoned out of the tank to a sink (Danielle Grau)
The English-made rifles were carried by a Confederate blockade runner and lost when it hit a sandbar and sank in Charleston, S.C, in 1863. They were recovered from the wreckage of the CSS Stono in the late 1980s.

Headlee says the rare guns remain in a state of limbo as they await conservation, with the goal of exhibiting them out of water. Removing harmful corrosive salts from their time in the ocean and using fresh-cycled water in the tank keep them stable.

Unfortunately, the iron rifle barrels, locks and bayonets are heavily deteriorated or gone. A tin and lead lining that sealed the cargo from salt air and ensured the rifles were not tampered with likewise is in bad conditionThe trigger guards, butt plates and nose caps at the end of the barrels are made brass and still intact.

Matt Sanford, Josh Snead and Josh Headlee clean interior (Danielle Grau)
We asked Headlee to describe the cleaning of the tank. This week, he worked with DNR archaeologist Matt Sanford and Josh Snead, a field interpreter for Georgia State Parks. All the photos were taken by Grau.

WHY THEY CLEAN THEM: The staff at Sweetwater keeps Headlee up on the condition and clarity of the tank, and he cleans it about twice a year. The main purpose is to remove algae, sediment or muck that could further harm the rifles, metal lining and the exterior crate. Headlee makes sure the aquarium pump and filter are working property. “The most important thing is to keep the water moving.”

PUMP IT UP AND OUT: The team uses a garden hose and transfer pump to draw the water out before the gentle cleaning. “There are no high-tech gadgets we are using,” says Headlee. “How do we get the water out, how do we get the water back in.” The removal takes about an hour.

Brass rifle butts after draining, the weapons during refilling (Danielle Grau)
NEXT STEP: The team used a sprayer and wet-dry vacuum to remove any debris; no cleaning agents are used. We use a “light spray to get any type of algae off.” They don’t scrub the rifles or the other contents, but do use soft-bristle brushes and towels on the glass. Over the years, they find less debris. Early on, Headlee used a colander to sift wood and metal for examination back at the lab. He notes that the malleable tin lining will pose the biggest conservation challenge. “I am not sure what we will be able to do.”

THE GREAT REFILL: After lunch, the team removed any remaining debris and begins filling the tank after brushing the sides. They turned the water off a few times in the filling process to make sure the filter pump was going to work properly and not leak. A fungicide was added. The water refilling took close to 1.5 hours.

Josh Headlee takes a close look during the tank refilling (Danielle Grau)
FINIS! The work is done by late afternoon and the visibility is markedly improved, to the benefit of the rifles and visitors. Headlee says it is even better the following day because of settling and the dissolving of the fungicide.

Getting the artifacts out of water and through conservation will save maintenance, time and effort, says Headlee. Two rifles were removed from the tank in 2022 to test a wood preservative. They are being held in fresh water at another state facility.

There’s no timetable for the conservation work, with other projects at the front of the line. Still, he is hopeful.

“They are not forgotten by any means,” he said.

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