How Did So Many Revolutionary War Cannons End Up in the Savannah River?

Archaeologists pull another dozen sediment-encrusted artillery pieces after finding three last year

Worker in yellow safety vest working machinery that lifts rusted cannon from water
Archaeologist pulled 12 Revolutionary War era cannons from the Savannah River in January.  U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Archaeologists found 12 Revolutionary War-era cannons and hauled them up from the murky depths of Georgia’s Savannah River, bringing the total to 15 found over the past year, and raising questions about the historic origins of the artillery pieces, reports Phil Gast of CNN.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers uncovered the rusted cannons last month, during an ongoing project to deepen the channel in order to give supertankers room to navigate the harbor, per CNN.

In February last year, archaeologists had discovered three cannons as crews worked to dredge and perform maintenance, reports Brooke Butler for Savannah news station WJCL. The cannons were found, along with cannonballs, at a deep point in the river called Five Fathom Hole, near Old Fort Jackson, a fortification built in 1808 as part of an early coastal defense system.

The findings prompted the scientists to explore other nearby sections of the river, leading to the latest discovery, according to a video produced by the Corps.

"…[W]e realized there had to be something down there because it is so rare to find one specimen like this, Corps district archaeologist Andrea Farmer tells WJCL, “so to find multiple was really remarkable."

Corps workers partnered with a team of experts from the Commonwealth Heritage Group and local divers to assist in resurfacing the cannon and other artifacts, using remote-sensing radar, per the video. The divers could only work the busy channel at either high or low tide and had to stop whenever freighters needed to pass through.

Conditions in the murky waters were extraordinarily difficult. "The tide turns…. You got zero vis [visibility]," diver Richard Steele says in the video. "The current is ripping you; you are holding on for dear life half the time, trying to hike your way through down there… Every time you get in the water, you are racing the clock."

The cannons appear to date to the mid-1700s, the researchers say, but further cleaning and testing is needed to determine their origins, per CNN.

large rusted cannon hanging over a metal gray tin of water
Though the cannons appear to be from the 1700s, scientists are cleaning the artifacts to determine a more precise date.  U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Experts initially believed the cannons may have belonged to the H.M.S. Rose, a British ship that was intentionally sunk in the river during the American Revolution.

In 1778, the British took control of Savannah in hopes of forming an alliance with Southern royalists, reports CNN. Within a year, British soldiers were defending the port against attacks by American militias and the Continental Army.

The Rose, armed with 20 cannons and 160 sailors, proved a “scourge” against the colonists for its successful forays up the Hudson River and along the Eastern coastline, according to the Royal Navy Forum. In Savannah, the British warship was helping to provide aid to British forces in defending the city. But when the French navy arrived to assist the Americans, the British scuttled Rose in the harbor in order to block the channel and prevent the French ships from entering and retaking the city.

Historical documents, however, confirm that the Rose was sunk further up river from where the cannons were found, and that its artillery was removed beforehand, according to CNN. British archives indicate the guns could belong to two other ships—possibly the H.M.S. Venus and H.M.S. Savannah—additional British troop transports that he Royal Navy sunk to block the channel.

In addition to the 15 cannons, archaeologists also found Revolutionary War-era anchors and bar shot—a type of munition that looks like a dumb bell and is commonly used to destroy ship rigging; and Civil War-era cribs—underwater obstructions placed in the river to block Union ships, reports CNN.

Over the years, the Savannah River has churned up troves of other artifacts, like Native American pottery shards, a Civil War ironclad sunk in 1864 and items from other shipwrecks.

The team plans to continue further study. Researchers tell WJCL it is possible that even more artifacts are lying at the bottom of the river. "The Savannah River has a ton of secrets,” Farmer says. “There's probably thousands of ship wrecks in this river.”