For 20 years, amateur diver Bob Butler searched the murky waters of the Pee Dee River for cannons he knew had been jettisoned from a Confederate warship shortly before it was scuttled in advance of surging Union troops at the end of the Civil War
He found one in 1995 as he dove near U.S. 301 on the Florence-Marion county line. He discovered another in 2006. He was on hand seven years later as a member of the Pee Dee Research and Recovery Team when the third cannon was located.
On Tuesday, Butler watched with quiet satisfaction as a team from the University of South Carolina raised the cannons from the muddy bottom of the river, some of the final remnants of Union Gen. William Sherman’s march through the Carolinas in 1865.
"We brought a little bit of South Carolina history to the surface today," Butler said. "This closed the book on a lot of history. It's really special."
The USC team began its search for the 150-foot Confederate gunboat and the cannons in 2009. The recovery project was funded, in part, by grant of more than $200,000 from the Drs. Bruce and Lee Foundation in Florence.
There are hundreds of Civil War-era cannons in the state, most recovered from armories at the end of the war. But the cannons are significant, State Archaeologist Jon Leader said, because their service has been well cataloged.
"We've got that locked down tight," Leader said.
They are also important because the cannon were part of a new way of using weapons on ships — mounting them so the could swivel 360 degrees to fight other vessels.
"It was at the beginning of modern naval warfare” State Archaeologist Jon Leader
The recovery was made at the site of a former Confederate inland naval yard, helping researchers better understand the history of inland shipyards and ports used by Southern forces. During the war, the Florence area was most known for a large prison camp, part of which is the site of a national cemetery.
The cannons were thrown off of the CSS Pee Dee as Sherman's troops approached after the burning of Columbia.
The Pee Dee, or Mars Bluff, Navy Yard was constructed in 1863 when the federal naval blockade and the capture of many of the state’s coastal areas drove the Confederate Navy’s shipbuilding efforts inland.
Confederate leaders wanted a ship that could patrol the river and also sail in the ocean to harass the blockading federal ships.
The CSS Pee Dee the first and only ship built at the Mar's Bluff yard. It was a Macon Class cruiser that was 150 feet long with a 25-foot beam, armed with three cannons pivoting at bow, stern and amidships.
The ship had sails as well as a boiler and giant twin propellers. The ship’s masts that could be lowered to fit under railroad trestles and bridges.
It was once referred to by the Confederate Navy Secretary as the finest ship ever built by the South.
But CSS Pee Dee’s career was short lived. Upon completion, it steamed upstream to head off Sherman's troops, may or may not have fired on them, then returned to Mars Bluff where it was burned.
"The war would have been over before it stuck it's nose out of the inlet," Leader said of the CSS Pee Dee's future as an ocean-going commerce raider. "They basically finished it, ran it up the river, ran it back and that was it."
Leader and underwater archaeologist Jim Spirek, both from the University of South Carolina, headed the effort to raise the cannons.
A team of underwater archaeologists from USC raised the three cannons. They include two Confederate Brooke Rifle cannons and one captured Union Dahlgren cannon.
9,000-15,000 Pounds each of the cannons weighed
A crowd of scientists, Civil War buffs and other onlookers cheered when the more than 150-year-old cannons were raised by a large yellow excavator from near the bank of the river.
For 90-year-old Catesby Jones, the day was special. He traveled from Selma, Ala., to watch the raising. His great-grandfather, also named Catesby Jones, worked at the foundry where one of the cannons was made.
"I've touched every cannon I could that came from there," the World War II veteran said. "They've been talking about this one for years. This is really exciting."
The cannons will be transported to the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in North Charleston for conservation. That is the same lab where the Civil War-era CSS Hunley— the first submarine to sink a ship in combat — is being restored.
The cannons will go on permanent outdoor display at the new U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs building in Florence.
The cannons "will help raise questions about the Civil War," said Steve Smith, director of USC’s Institute of Archeology and Anthropology. "And then they will start to ask questions. It's an important day."
Details of the three Civil War cannons recovered Tuesday from the Pee Dee River near Florence by a team from the University of South Carolina:
Brooke rifle: Cast in Selma, Ala., on April 29, 1863. Delivered to South Carolina on July 13, 1863. Bore diameter — 6.4 inches. Bore length — 9.8 feet. Weight — 10,600 pounds.
Brooke rifle: Cast in Selma, Ala., on Oct. 12, 1863. Delivered to South Carolina on July 3, 1863. Bore diameter — 7 inches. Bore length — 11 feet. Weight — 15,000 pounds.
Dahlgren: Cast in Fort Pitt, Penn., in mid-1862. Bore diameter — 9 inches. Bore length — 8.9 feet. Weight — 9,000 pounds.