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EXCLUSIVE: Signs found of Sherman’s weapons dump in downtown Columbia, SC, river

That confounded Union general whose name still draws hisses in South Carolina 150 years after he laid waste to the Capital City is causing yet another ruckus in Columbia.

On their way out of town, Union troops led by William T. Sherman dumped loads of captured Confederate ordnance – from cannonballs to ball cartridges, rammers, sabers, bayonet scabbards and knapsacks – into the Congaree River.

The artifacts have long been part of local lore, and the few pieces retrieved over the years indicated there might be more.

Now, through the science of sonar and metal detection, historians and researchers have better evidence of precisely where the munitions were dumped near the Gervais Street bridge in downtown Columbia. Excavators are planning how best to retrieve the artifacts.

“It’s really going to help us interpret what was a defining point for Columbia’s history, and, really, South Carolina’s history,” Joe Long, curator of the S.C. Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum, said of the impending finds.

The state of South Carolina will own whatever is pulled from the water. James Spirek, the state’s underwater archeologist, said the ordnance likely will be housed at the Relic Room, which is located in the same building as the State Museum, right at the Gervais Street bridge.

In 1865, Sherman’s troops kept what they wanted of confiscated rebel ordnance, then threw the rest into the river to keep it away from the Confederates. Better armed, Sherman then headed for North Carolina on his destructive march.

Getting the suspected weapons cache out of the water safely could be an issue.

No one’s certain what’s there or how dangerous it is. Explosives experts will be on hand to supervise. A high-end condominium complex, the State Museum and EdVenture children’s museum are nearby.

“Hopefully, none of it is going to blow up,” Long said of the weaponry, with a chuckle.

Complicating the process is the fact that the munitions lie beneath a 2-foot thick layer of tar that oozed from a long-closed gas-making plant located near what today is the Governor’s Mansion and lodged in that part of the river.

Consultants hired by the SCANA Corp. as part of the S.C.-based utility’s complex, $18.5 million clean up of the river found evidence of the artifacts. They would be removed along with the tar as the tar is hauled away over three years. SCANA announced in 2010 that the tar had been discovered and would be removed, but it did not say anything about the ordnance.

A draft of a September report to SCANA from Tidewater Atlantic Research and obtained by The State newspaper, states, “It has been confirmed that in 1865, during the Civil War, live munitions and other articles of war produced by the Confederacy were dumped into the Congaree River near the Gervais Street bridge by Union forces.”

Using sonar and magnetic metal detectors lowered from barges, researchers located 570 sites in the area of the river they tested and reported 218 as “exhibiting signature characteristics that could be associated with ordnance.” A total of 425 sites were reported as “potentially being ordnance.”

PART OF CITY’S LORE

Kayakers and river tour guides for years have talked about Union troops dumping ordnance.

“That’s what I told people when I was a river guide,” said Bill Stangler, now the Congaree’s Riverkeeper, who has been involved with permit negotiations for the dredging project.

Columbia was a manufacturing center for the Confederacy. It produced uniforms, weapons, powder and food for Robert E. Lee’s Army in Virginia. Several gunpowder plants lined the Columbia Canal and the river through what is now Guignard family property.

The city’s railroads and central location made it a hub for moving munitions, many made in Augusta, Long said. Columbia also was home to the Palmetto Armory, where some weaponry was made, he said. The armory is near what is now the Governor’s Mansion, on Arsenal Hill. The state arsenal, which doubled as a preparatory academy for Citadel students, housed Confederate munitions for shipping to rebel soldiers.

Accounts from J.F. Williams, author of a 1929 book on the burning of Columbia, show that for years after the war, Columbians would dive into the river to reclaim cannon balls and shells, according to the Tidewater report.

In the 1930s, political leaders in New Brookland – now known as West Columbia – organized a recovery project after two fishermen found ammunition. The organized dig through mud and silt turned up six 10-inch cannon balls, 1,010 rounds of rifle balls, 767 pointed rifle balls, some cast-iron cannon shells, time-fused bombs and an artillery ax, among other munitions, according to a 1930 article in The State newspaper.

“The 1930s recovery accounts for only a fraction of what may be present,” Tidewater consultants wrote.

Private salvage projects in the 1970s and ’80s turned up more material.

“Historic documentation clearly indicates that disposal of the ordnance was a significant event associated with the capture and burning of Columbia,” the consultants wrote. They said the tar cover, which stretches some 1,800 feet along the Columbia side of the river, includes artifacts that meet the criteria for a National Register of Historic Places site.

WHAT MIGHT BE THERE

A formal archeological study of the site has not been done, so precisely what will be uncovered during dredging remains a mystery.

But a Feb. 17, 1865, inventory of the ordnance and ordnance stores captured in Columbia lists 1.2 million ball cartridges, 100,000 percussion caps, 26,150 pounds of gun powder, 4,000 bayonet scabbards, 3,100 sabers, 1,100 knapsacks, 58 tents and 20 blacksmith vices, among much more equipment.

As Sherman’s army roared in from the west, three divisions and a Union cavalry unit camped Feb. 16, 1865, on the west bank of the Congaree directly across from the Capital City.

After a short battle at Congaree Creek near what is now Cayce, one of three corps of Sherman’s army spread out and began shelling Columbia, from among other places, the West Columbia shoreline.

Rebel troops burned the then-wooden Gervais Street bridge to slow Sherman’s advance, the Tidewater report states.

“Columbia citizens were trying to evacuate the city, and bales of cotton were dragged into the street to be carried off and burned to keep them from falling into enemy hands,” wrote the consultants, who studied the area’s history dating to the Paleoindian period between 10,000 to 12,500 years ago.

“Wade Hampton, hastily promoted to lieutenant general, was left to defend the city with General Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry,” the historical account continues. “Sensing the futility of the defense, Wheeler’s men began looting the city, ostensibly to prevent capture by the Union army.

“On the night of the 16th, Hampton announced that he planned to evacuate on the following morning, leaving behind the cotton which he was unable to transport. That evening, fueled by spirits dispensed without restriction, Union troops created more mischief through the city. When the cotton in the streets caught fire, they were unable or unwilling to contain the blazes.

“The result was the near complete destruction of Columbia,” the consultants’ report states. “Having the run of the countryside for several days, Union troops burned many homes and farms in the region.”

According to records from Union Gen. John E. Smith, it took 1,200 men and 50 wagons from 1 p.m. Feb. 18 to 6 p.m. the next day to destroy machinery, ordnance, ordnance stores and ammunition.

As the Capital City prepares to commemorate the anniversary of Sherman’s attack, current-day Columbians might soon see some of the weaponry that for decades has been shielded by black goo from a 20th century plant that produced “town gas” used for heating, cooking and lighting.

BELOW: An interactive map follows the path of Sherman’s troops through Columbia in February 1865. Mobile users, click here:

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