Watery battlefield in Charleston Harbor mapped

Published 8:25 pm Saturday, September 8, 2012

CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — Shipwrecks and other obstructions the Union sank to the bottom of Charleston Harbor during the Civil War – as well as submerged Confederate blockade runners – are mapped in a project that took scientists nearly as long as the four-year battle for the city where the war began.
The endeavor taken on by James Spirek and his colleagues from the University of South Carolina Institute for Archaeology and Anthropology cost almost $60,000 and provides a nearly complete map of the war relics in the busy harbor. The project was financed with an American Battlefield Protection grant matched by the institute.
The map includes the locations of the so-called Stone Fleet and 13 wrecked blockade runners. The Union brought the Stone Fleet of 29 old whaling and merchant vessels from New England, filled them with stones and sank the mess to obstruct Confederate shipping.
Spirek’s team located the first Stone Fleet by finding ballast mounds beneath the main shipping channel. A second group of 13 ships is in another channel and its location have proved elusive, so Spirek plans to return to the later this year to explore further.
Four sunken Union ironclads had already been documented.
The map will be useful to harbor managers, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is responsible for dredging, and to historians to make sure the sites aren’t disturbed.
“Our folks here in our planning department have the information and we will be using it to inform us of things we didn’t know about,” said Brian Williams, the corps project manager for a $20 million study of deepening the harbor shipping channel beyond its present 45 feet.
“The harbor is a big place,” he said. “When you are out there in a small boat trying to tow some equipment … and find that needle in a haystack, it’s a lot more informative to know where other people have found things. It will be very helpful for us.”
When deepening the harbor – local maritime interests want it to be at least 50 feet – the corps has to void or minimize impacts on historical or cultural resources.
When the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley was found off Charleston in 1995, it was monitored electronically for five years to prevent looters from diving on it until it could be raised.
Spirek said the location of the other harbor wrecks doesn’t carry as much concern.
“Fortunately, most of the environments the wrecks are in are pretty hostile for sport divers — currents and a lot of black water,” he said. Three of the Union ironclads are buried under substantial sediment while the fourth, the Patapsco, is near the main shipping harbor channel so it’s not in a location where people would be diving.
Charleston, historians say, has been bombarded more than any city in the Western Hemisphere and the battle for it was uncommon.
“Even the commanders on the ground knew it was unusual,” Spirek said. “Here’s a siege, but either side could get whatever supplies it needed. Charleston could get it from the land side. They had a little difficulty getting the blockade runners in, but they are getting in, and the Union is getting its supplies as well.”
Beyond that, there were few secrets on either side. The Confederates could see the location of the Union blockade ships from harbor fortifications while Union sailors could see from ships’ masts where Confederates were putting in harbor obstructions. And, as the war went on, both sides had cracked each other’s signal codes.
Charleston never fell but was abandoned by the Confederates as Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman marched through inland South Carolina cutting off the city’s supply lines. It was unlike Mobile, Ala., which the Union captured by making a run past the harbor fortifications.
“Mobile Bay had two forts compared to 100 guns in Charleston Harbor. And the Army wasn’t going to be following the Navy through so there was no way seven ironclads with 130 men each was going to take Charleston,” Spirek said.
Holding Charleston was symbolically important to the South while the Union had priorities elsewhere.
“It became almost like a holding action,” he said. “The Confederates were stronger and the longer the Union delayed in taking Charleston, the stronger Charleston got.”