Civil War Steamer Found Off South Carolina

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Sonar image of SS United States.
Spence Trust Inc.

The wreck of the SS United States, a 19th-century steamer built during the American Civil War, has been discovered off the coast of South Carolina. U.S. explorers made the announcement today, just in time to celebrate the nation's 4th of July, Independence Day.

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The sunken cargo of the expensive vessel could reveal anything from worthless horseshoes and hammers to jewelry and other expensive items worth millions of dollars.

Launched in 1864 as the pride of one of America's premier ship builders, the three-decked vessel was lost off Cape Romain in 1881. It was found there, in 16 feet of water, by underwater archaeology pioneer and treasure hunter Dr. E. Lee Spence and expedition members Brandon Fulwider and Mike Stearns, who made the first dives on it.

“The SS United States is part of a cluster of wrecks of sailing vessels and steamers that were lost on the outer shoal of Cape Romain,” Spence told Discovery News.

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Located on a major shipping route that has been used since the days of the Spanish galleons, Cape Romain is made up of a series of shoals that run almost six miles out from the shore.

“It can be a very dangerous place, and it’s also remote, which is the biggest reason that lots of other professional salvors haven't already worked it,” Spence said.

The explorer, who discovered the Civil War submarine H.L. Hunley, the SS Georgiana and many other historically significant shipwrecks, announced last month the discovery of the SS Ozama, a smuggler's shipwrecked steamer belonging to the same disgraced cluster.

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“We found the SS United States on one of my earlier expeditions to Cape Romain. It was not until this year, when we made some more dives on it, that we were able to positively determine her identity,” Spence said.

He inspected the wreck with Rick Reely, Andrew Crabtree, Will Schexnayder, and Guido Portella. After checking the size, engine type, wood, and other details, which all matched the historical records, the team was able to verify that the vessel was the SS United States.

“When everything is taken together, there is really nothing else this wreck could be. There were no other wooden hulled steamers her general size and type that were lost at that location,” Spence said.

The 1180 ton, 197 ft long vessel started breaking up shortly after she grounded. As she went to pieces, her sides broke outwards and are laying flat in the sand.

“There is still lots of intact wood buried just under the mud and sand, but most of the exposed wood is now gone. The ship's machinery, boilers, shaft, propeller and other metal parts, like brass valves, copper and lead pipes, and cargo is all that remains,” Spence said.

The SS United States was expensively built in white oak and cedar at the S. Gildersleeve & Son shipyard in Portland, Connecticut. Featuring a copper bottomed and a wood hull, she had three decks, a round stern, and deck saloons.

An ornately carved eagle, the symbol of United States, stood at the top of the ship’s bow, complete with spread wings and talons out.

“The extra flourishes her builders put into this ship reflected the growing patriotism felt in the northern states when it became clear that the United States of America was winning the Civil War against the Confederate States of America,” Spence said.

Having her homeport in Boston, the vessel carried both passengers and cargo, usually going to ports like Charleston, Savannah, Jacksonville and New Orleans.

She was classed A-1, which meant she met Lloyd's insurance requirements to carry the best cargoes.

“Typically, when bound south, as she was on this voyage, she would have carried a general cargo consisting of bales, crates, barrels and boxes of assorted merchandise. That could be anything from fine china to bottles of wine,” Spence said.

On 3 April 1881, while en route from Boston for Savannah, the vessel went ashore on the infamous Cape Romain, possibly because of a foggy weather and strong winds.

“The ship has sprung a leak and the lower hold is full of water,” the Boston Daily Globe reported.

According to another report in the Charleston News and Courier, no lives were lost and part of the “between decks” cargo, consisting of “articles of general merchandise,” was recovered along with the ship's tackle, rigging and some furniture.

Attempts to tow the stranded steamer failed.

“When the vessel was abandoned there was fourteen feet of water in her hold, and the wreck was fast going to pieces,” the newspaper reported.

According to Spence, who has been officially recognized as the "true and exclusive owner" of all of the wreckage, the bulk of her valuable cargo would have been shipped in her cargo hold, which flooded quite early and would have been inaccessible without divers.

“It would surprise me if she wasn't carrying at least some imported goods. Things like gold pocket watches, scotch and champagne, which were often transshipped from Boston to southern ports, could bring top dollar today,” Spence said.

“Depending on both the quantity and condition, the recovery could theoretically total many millions of dollars. We simply won’t know until we do the work,” he added.

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Gene Birdsong, an expert on shipwrecks and lost treasure, agrees.

“Her lost cargo was valued at $25,000 in 1881 dollar values, which could be worth up to 1.6 million dollars at today's value,” Birdsong told Discovery News.

“If her cargo holds can be salvaged, it would offer a unique insight to life in the late 1800's,” he added.

Funded by United Gold Explorations Limited, a British company, Spence and his team have already started the preliminary work to recover the cargo on both the SS United States and the SS Ozama. They are using basic archaeological techniques and remote sensing equipment to completely map the wrecks.

Spence expects most of the SS United States’ cargo to be buried in the surrounding sand and plans to use a propwash deflector to excavate by blowing the sand away.

“If we find just horseshoes and parts of the ship, we will move on to the next wreck,” he said.

“All of my wrecks are all outside of South Carolina waters, so the State doesn't have any involvement in the work, but I do plan to donate some of the artifacts to various museums around the State,” he added.

To read more about Spence’s visit his website here.

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