Historical Society hears of quest for Confederate cannons
By Samantha Lyles, Staff Writer, firstname.lastname@example.org
The Darlington County Historical Society convened their 2016 Spring Meeting on April 21, and heard a presentation from author Ted Gragg and diver Bob Butler, who spent decades searching muddy riverbanks and murky waters for relics from the Confederate Warship CSS Pee Dee.
Scuttled near the inland Confederate Naval Yard at Mars Bluff, the Pee Dee was intentionally sunk in advance of General Sherman’s advancing troops. Though the exact date of the sinking is unknown, recorded remembrances place it around March 18, 1865.
In his book “Guns of the Pee Dee: The Search for the Warship CSS Pee Dee’s Cannons,” published in 2011, Gragg recounts how his interest in that vessel began as a young boy when a Conway doctor told him tales of local Civil War exploits. That interest persisted throughout his life, and was particularly piqued in 1972 during a business jaunt to Marion.
“As a twelve year-old, I kept hearing stories about the CSS Pee Dee from people in Conway and Marion, and after I returned from military service as a new husband and new father, I was working the Marion and Florence area once a week on a route selling electric material to factories,” Gragg recalls. “And one day, a worker at a factory told me she liked to fish from an old iron log sticking out of the Great Pee Dee River.”
That catfishing story about the “iron log” turned out to be a real lead. Gragg set to his quest in earnest and was little dissuaded by the passage of time. Accompanied by his wife Connie and their daughters Holly and Wendy, the archaeological digs turned into some uniquely fun family outings as the Graggs looked for relics from the 150-foot wooden-hulled gunboat. Over the years, they found a number of artifacts along the bluff and edges of the river. A sizable cache of these artifacts discovered in 1991 inspired the formation of the CSS Pee Dee Research and Recovery Team, which involved bringing trained blackwater divers onto the team.
“That process led to finding other items, and when we found enough to confirm our suspicions, we went to the South Carolina Institute of Anthropology and Archaeology and got them involved. Bob Butler of Florence, a very professional blackwater diver came over and joined in, and we increased the size of team and sent them all to receive training at the Archaeological School of the University of South Carolina in Charleston. Then we began extricating even more things from the river and grounds,” Gragg says. “We didn’t know it then, but that started a progression of events that lasted, almost weekly, up until September 29, 2015 when they actually removed the guns from the water.”
Two Confederate Brooke rifle cannons (one firing 6.4” shells and the other 7” shells, with total weights of 10,600 and 15,000 pounds) and one captured Union Dahlgren cannon (firing 9” shells and weighing 9,200 pounds) were raised from the Great Pee Dee River by a team of archaeologists from USC, but the guns would likely have not been discovered at all were it not for the Graggs, Butler, and the hard work put in by their team.
After two years of conservation work, the cannons will return to Florence for display at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The recovery project was partly funded by a $200,000 grant from the Drs. Bruce and Lee Foundation.
Though the cannons will eventually be put on display for the public to enjoy, they weren’t the only historical artifacts recovered from the CSS Pee Dee. When Ted and Connie couldn’t find a museum to underwrite items they recovered, they built their own museum and used their own collection of Civil War items to flesh it out. Now all the relics they recovered from the dig are on display at the South Carolina Civil War Museum in Myrtle Beach.
Ted adds that a second book about the expedition and cannon recovery is scheduled for release in October, 2016.
“Guns of the Pee Dee” is available for purchase now through Amazon. The South Carolina Civil War Museum is located at 4857 Hwy 17 ByPass South in Myrtle Beach; visit them online at www.mbisr.com
For more information about the Darlington County Historical Society, contact Historical Commission director Brian Gandy at 843-398-4710.