The Confederate States Ship (C.S.S.) Pee Dee was launched in January 1865 as the American Civil War was stuttering to an end. She was sailing on the Great River Pee Dee in South Carolina, where she’d been built, when her short life as an active participant in the carnage of the Civil War ended little more than two months after her launch. But what happened to her then?
After four long years of conflict between Confederate and Union forces, by the beginning of 1865 the Civil War was reaching its conclusion. Although the main engagements of the war were fought on land, there was also action at sea. On the east coast, the main activity came from the Union’s blockade of Confederate ports.
In 1861 General Winfield Scott formulated what was known as the Anaconda Plan. The gist of this was that a blockade of Confederate ports would cripple the southern economy, bringing the war to a quick end. The blockade was indeed implemented, but failed in its goal of taking the war to a rapid conclusion.
For its part, the Confederacy concentrated on defending its inland waters such as the Mississippi and the Pee Dee and its Atlantic and Gulf coasts. But it could never really compete seriously with the numerical superiority of the Union’s naval forces. In fact Union ships outnumbered Confederate ships by a margin of more than three to one.
The C.S.S. Pee Dee was built at the Mars Bluff Navy Yard, located on the banks of the Pee Dee River. This shipyard was opened in 1863 and is evidence of the success of the Union’s naval blockade. This had forced Confederate shipbuilding to the safety of inland locations rather than coastal facilities.
This Confederate shipyard was almost 100 miles from the Atlantic and South Carolina State Archaeologist Jonathan Leader told CNN, “It is one of the farthest (shipyards) inland. It was at the nexus of railroads and a lumber yard. It had an artisan group … It was a perfect mix of resources to get the job done. They built five boats.”
The ship’s purpose would have been to guard the river against Union attack as well as to venture out to sea with the aim of harrying the Union ships involved in the coastal blockade. But by the time she was launched, it was all but over for the Confederate cause.
The final nail in the coffin for the forces of the Confederacy came at the Battle of Five Forks on April 1, 1865. Union troops crushed an inferior Confederate force and the road was now open to the Confederate capital: Richmond, Virginia. A black American unit, the Union XXV Corps, duly took Richmond.
After the fall of Richmond and the ensuing Battle of the Appomattox Court House, Confederate General Lee realized that defeat was inevitable. On April 9, 1865 he surrendered to the forces of the Union’s General Grant. This surrender signaled the final collapse of the Confederate forces elsewhere in the following weeks.
So, with its January 1865 launch the Pee Dee was finished in time to at least theoretically play its part in the hostilities. The vessel was 150 feet long and had a beam of 25 feet and as well as sails, it had two large propellers powered by a steam engine. The masts were designed to fold down to allow the Pee Dee to sail under bridges.
The ship was designed for a crew of 91 and something like two-thirds of them would have been dedicated to operating and servicing the ship’s three guns. And these were truly formidable weapons. There were two Brooke rifled cannons, one at the stern, the other at the bow, plus a smooth-bored Dahlgren cannon set amidships. Leader told CNN that the Pee Dee was “fast, powerful and deadly.”
After its launch, preceded by frantic searches for coal and other supplies, the Pee Dee never made it to the sea. By February 1865 Union forces had captured Georgetown, South Carolina and that meant that the ship was confined to the River Pee Dee. In fact, the Pee Dee was only to see one brief piece of action.
At the beginning of March the ship’s commander, Lt. Oscar Johnston, sailed his vessel to the city of Cheraw, some 60 miles upstream from the Pee Dee shipyard. The mission was to provide cover for Confederate troops crossing the Pee Dee River. Whether or not the ship fired a shot in anger is a matter of debate among historians.
After this foray upriver, Johnston turned the Pee Dee around and headed back to the Mars Bluff shipyard. Union forces led by General Sherman overwhelmed Cheraw on March 2, 1865. The worry for the Confederacy now was that the Pee Dee and her guns might fall into enemy hands.
This anxiety led to the order to destroy both the Mars Bluff shipyard and the Pee Dee. On March 15, the crew of the Pee Dee jettisoned the guns into the river. The ship was then taken a little way downstream, put to the torch and destroyed.
And at the bottom of the river was where the Pee Dee’s powerful guns were to remain for 150 years. In the early and middle part of the 20th century the Pee Dee was low enough on occasion to allow salvage of some of her parts. The propellers, for example, are displayed at the Florence County Museum.
But salvage of the Pee Dee was problematic because when she was scuttled, her crew made frantic attempts to completely wreck the vessel. Speaking to South Carolina newspaper The State in 2010, archaeologist Leader said, “They started dismantling the vessel and burning it. It’s a debris field.” And the ship faced more destruction later.
In 1906 the Army Corps of Engineers conducted a dredging exercise of the Pee Dee River and this operation unfortunately caused more damage to what remained of the Pee Dee. Nevertheless, in 1925,the ship’s two propellers – those now at Florence County Museum – were found and hauled from the river.
But one particular salvage event in 1954 helped researchers to actually locate the Pee Dee years later. This part of the ship’s story centers on Michael O. Hartley, head of archaeology at Old Salem Museum & Gardens in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Back in 1954, he was 12 years old, but he has clear memories of a crucial moment on the Pee Dee River.
As a boy in 1954 Hartley witnessed men pulling the Pee Dee’s boiler from the river. And he went to the trouble of creating a sketch map and writing up notes about the intriguing event he’d seen first-hand. He spoke about his experience to The State in that 2010 article about the lost ship.
Hartley told the newspaper, “I have always known, because I saw it, where that boat was. I’m just pleased that it isn’t all gone or isn’t all so ruined that something can’t be learned from it.” In fact, Hartley was speaking not long after the wreckage of the Pee Dee, or at least what remained of it, had in all probability been discovered.
Or at least Leader, searching for the ship back in 2009, believed that the remains of the Pee Dee had been located. Leader had been working with researcher Chris Amer taking sonar readings on the riverbed to try and locate what remained of the Confederate vessel. Their first attempt over three weeks in July 2009 had turned up nothing of significance.
However, undeterred by their initial lack of success, Amer and Leader had returned to the Pee Dee River in September 2009. And this time their efforts were rewarded. In November their sonar exploration showed a series of heavy-duty iron bolts arrayed in a straight line. And Leader felt sure they’d found the Pee Dee.
Talking about the results of the sonar exercise, Leader told The State, “You are actually able to paint a picture. You don’t find a lot of straight lines in nature. You find bolts in a straight line, you have something.” But Leader and Amer couldn’t be 100 percent sure of what they’d found just yet.
But at that point, after reading about the likely discovery of Pee Dee, Hartley got in touch with Amer and Leader and revealed what he’d witnessed back in 1954. Talking to TV station WMBF News in June 2010, Amer described what had happened. “Michael Hartley, an archaeologist in North Carolina, said he was 12 years old when he watched a group of men salvage a boiler and parts of C.S.S Pee Dee at Mars Bluff.”
Amer continued, “He said the water was low and that he made a detailed map of its location. I was able to go right to the spot. Hartley’s account matched up with magnetic readings that I took of a 25,000-square-foot area.” There was now little doubt about the location of the Pee Dee’s wreck.
In fact, two of the three cannons with which the Pee Dee had been armed had been found before the wreck of the ship was discovered. And the weapons were located at some distance from the scattered debris of the ship itself. A team from a private group, the C.S.S. Pee Dee Research and Recovery Team, had found the first of the three in 1995.
This cannon had been found in the waterway about a mile downriver from the ship’s wreckage. It was located in the Pee Dee’s waters just by the site of the Mars Bluff Navy Yard where the vessel had been built and launched. That gun first discovered was the nine-inch smooth-bore Dahlgren. But after that discovery, it would be 11 more years before another cannon was found.
So it was in 2006 when the same team who had discovered the first gun came across a second one, not far from the location of the Dahlgren. This one was a 6.4-inch Brooke rifle, one of two Brooke guns that the Pee Dee had carried. With the discovery of the wreckage in 2009 that we’ve already heard about, that left one final mystery. Where was the missing Brooke cannon?
The C.S.S. Pee Dee Research and Recovery Team continued the search using a variety of equipment. They scanned the riverbed with a metal detector and with a magnetometer and dug at likely spots. They found a variety of objects, including parts of an old stove and old logging equipment. But still there was no sign of the missing cannon.
Then in 2012 the river was running very low and another search was made using a metal detector. The water was shallow enough that the searchers could wade in it while using the detector and, at last, a promising magnetic anomaly appeared near the rotting timbers of the old shipyard’s jetty. This time, they’d struck lucky. Finally, they’d pinpointed the location of the third cannon.
With the location of the three cannons now confirmed, the next step was to prepare them for lifting from the riverbed. Towards the end of September 2015 the salvage team removed some of the silt from atop the guns so that they would be easier to move. Straps were attached to the cannon and one of them was moved nearer to the shore.
September 29, 2019 was the day scheduled for the hauling of the Pee Dee’s three guns from the river. A crowd of spectators and reporters gathered on the great day to watch the cannons emerge from their watery graves. Among them was amateur diver Bob Butler. He had been part of the team that found the first of the cannons in 1995 and the second in 2006.
Speaking to The State on the day the guns were retrieved, Butler said, “We brought a little bit of South Carolina history to the surface today. This closed the book on a lot of history. It’s really special.” And there was another man present for whom this was an especially significant day.
Catesby Jones, aged 90 when the cannons were lifted, had traveled all the way from his home in Selma, Alabama to see the guns raised. His great-grandfather, another Catesby Jones, had actually worked at the foundry where one of Pee Dee’s guns was manufactured. He told The State, “I’ve touched every cannon I could that came from there. They’ve been talking about this one for years. This is really exciting.”
The historic guns were raised from the muddy bed of the Pee Dee River by a team from the University of South Carolina. Heavy equipment was needed to lift the sizable cannons. After all, between them the weapons weighed about 35,000 pounds and measured from 8.9 to 12.25 feet in length.
The three guns were actually loaded when they were raised. In fact, the two Brooke cannons were primed with small shot. These munitions would have caused bloody death and destruction used at close range against any force attacking the ship or attempting to board.
Once the guns were recovered, they were sent for a prolonged period of conservation at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center, located at Clemson University in North Charleston, South Carolina. After that process was completed, the cannons were to be held permanently at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in Florence. There, they would be exhibited outdoors.
The painstaking conservation work went on for four years before the guns were finally ready for public display. For two years the three cannons were left to soak in a special solution to remove salts which could ultimately damage the metal. Once that was done, conservators carried out further work including constructing carriages for the guns.
In June 2019 the fully restored guns were installed at their new home outside the Florence County Veterans Affairs Center. Center director Randy Godbold told WMBF News, “This is pretty unique. You know, where else do you have two Confederate war cannons and one Union cannon? President of Florence County Historical Society, Ben Zeigler, added, “Having those cannons at the veterans center I think are a tangible reminder of that sacrifice and the efforts that go into keeping the order and liberty we enjoy.”