North Carolina shipwreck may be Civil War blockade runner

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19th-century shipwreck was discovered below Wilmington, N.C. Officials say it is a Civil War-era steamer, possibly a blockade runner. (Credit: N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources)

WILMINGTON, N.C. — So-called blockade runners of the Civil War were the epitome of maritime stealth technology of the day.

“They were the equivalent of a cigarette boat. They were wickedly fast,” said underwater archaeologist Billy Ray Morris. “They had the most sophisticated engines that England could put out.”

Daring Confederate runners usually made it through Union naval blockades meant to prevent them from bringing vital war goods to Southern ports.

One that had a few successful runs before it ran aground below Wilmington may be the Civil War-era shipwreck that was recently discovered, North Carolina officials said Monday.

The iron-hulled steamer was found Feb. 27 during a sonar sweep 400 yards off the beach near Oak Island, said Morris, director of the state’s Underwater Archaeology Branch.

Historians and scientists have known that three blockade runners ran aground in the area, but conditions in recent years have caused small and large portions of wrecks to emerge from the sand, in this case about 18 to 20 feet below the Atlantic Ocean’s surface.

The Agnes E. Fry, Spunkie and Georgianna McCaw went down within proximity of each other. Morris believes the Fry is the “leading candidate,” given it was closest in length to the wreck. About 225 feet of remains are exposed.

“It is the right location to be one of these three,” said Morris. He and others will dive the wreck on Wednesday; Morris expects to have the ship’s identity confirmed this week.

Officials said the largely intact wreck, about 27 miles downstream from Wilmington, near the mouth of the Cape Fear River, is the first Civil War-era vessel found in the area in decades.

“The preservation of this vessel is astounding,” said Morris. “You can see that in the sonar image.”

A very lucrative, but risky business

Blockade runners hit the waters early in the Civil War after President Abraham Lincoln declared the Union strategy aimed at thwarting Confederate imports or exports of cotton and other goods.

It was a lucrative business, given runners carried war materiel and consumer goods — such as fine wines, dresses and household goods.

“If you made one complete round trip, you paid for your ship,” said Morris.

The Agnes E. Fry was built on the River Clyde in Scotland in 1864. Originally named the Fox, the blockade running company that bought the vessel renamed it in honor of the captain’s wife.

Historical accounts show the Agnes E. Fry conducted business in Havana, Cuba, and possibly other neutral ports in Bermuda and the Bahamas. The Union navy did its best to intercept blockade runners, either far or near American shores.

The vessels were generally unarmed and often were painted an unobtrusive pale gray so as to not garner too much attention on the seas.

The Agnes E. Fry and the other two runners were designed to get around the Union blockade of the vital port of Wilmington.

“Fortifications protected both entrances to the Cape Fear River from the Atlantic and were critical in keeping open a lifeline to the Confederacy until Fort Fisher fell in January 1865,” the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources said in a statement. The fall of Fort Fisher led to the fall of Wilmington and a critical railroad line, hastening the end of the Confederacy.

Morris said the Fry’s small crew ran it aground near Fort Caswell rather than let it fall into enemy hands. Subsequent salvaging removed the engines, paddle wheels and other parts for scrap.

Vessel was ‘state of the art’

Scientists have been looking for the three blockade runners and used records and a predictive model to narrow the search. The work has been partially funded by the National Park Service’s American Battlefield Protection Program, and assisted by the Institute for International Maritime Research.

“These wrecks cover and uncover. Right now, we are in an uncover phase,” said Morris, adding the wreck pokes 6 to 8 feet above sand and extends about that much below.

The archaeologist said people are welcome to check out the area.

“I just ask them to be good stewards of shared heritage. It is against the law to take stuff off of it, but it is not against the law to look at it.”

It’s possible some cargo remains in the shipwreck, but Morris doesn’t know what was carried on this doomed trip.

His priority is to positively identify the ship. Artifacts or parts of the vessel would be brought up only to answer questions. He thinks more research will tell historians more about the ship’s technology. “She would have been a state of the art blockade runner.”