Civil War Weapons Recovered From South Carolina’s Congaree River

Union troops tossed Confederate munitions and supplies into the waterway after taking Columbia in February 1865

Two artillery shells sitting on a table next to a sign that reads 10-inch shells
Crews used armor-plated excavators while working on the riverbed in case they came across unexploded ordnances. Dominion Energy

Archaeologists have unearthed a trove of Civil War weapons from South Carolina’s Congaree River.

Cannonballs, artillery shells and other items have been lurking in the waterway since February 1865, when Union forces occupied Columbia under the leadership of General William Tecumseh Sherman.

After Columbia’s mayor surrendered on February 17, 1865, Confederate forces retreated. Union troops—many of them drunk—began ransacking Columbia. In the end, more than two-thirds of the city burned down.

Union soldiers also tossed thousands of Confederate weapons and supplies into the river, including sabers, bayonets, tents, backpacks, ball cartridges and gunpowder, according to Live Science’s Kristina Killgrove.

Archaeologists have known about the submerged Civil War weapons, but they didn’t have a chance to recover them until recently. Their opportunity arrived when Dominion Energy launched an extensive $20 million project to remove coal tar dumped in the Congaree River by a manufactured gas plant decades ago.

The cleanup effort began in June 2022 and wrapped up this fall. As a precaution against unexploded munitions, crews used armor-plated excavators while working on the riverbed, reports the State’s Sammy Fretwell.

Spherical ammunitions next to a measuring tape
Eventually, the artifacts will be displayed at the South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum in Columbia. Sean Norris / TRC Companies

Recovered artifacts include two 10-inch artillery shells, grapeshot, canister shots and a sword blade. Archaeologists also found at least one unexploded ordnance that had to be “demilitarized” at the nearby Shaw Air Force Base, reports James Pollard for the Associated Press (AP). They also unearthed a wheel they suspect once belonged to a wagon.

Cannonball next to a white board
The artifacts had been submerged in the river since 1865. Sean Norris / TRC Companies

“If we were sitting here 160 years ago, we would have heard that cannonball firing, we would have seen smoke from the fires, we would have seen the flames that night,” says Sean Norris, archaeological program manager at the environmental consulting firm TRC, in a video shared by Dominion Energy. “It’s pretty powerful when that history that you read about, you hear about, suddenly comes into reality, and you can hold it in your hand.”

Archaeologists also recovered Native American arrowheads, as well as more recent items such as appliances and vehicle parts.

“[The history is] very important,” says Henry McMaster, South Carolina’s governor, to Zoie Henry of WLTX, a local TV station. “We need to preserve our history because we can learn so much from it.”

Per the AP, the artifacts will eventually go on display at the South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum in Columbia.

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