Civil War weapons — including bullets, cannonballs and rusty swords — are among debris removed from South Carolina’s Congaree River during a yearlong cleanup project targeting coal tar toxic on the banks of the waterway.
The Civil War story came as no surprise to Sean Norris, archaeological program manager at environmental consulting firm TRC. A previous underwater survey “indicated the presence of several types of cannonballs and projectiles as well as hundreds, if not thousands, of musket cartridges,” Norris told Live Science in an email.
In fact, historical records list thousands of additional items captured from Confederate troops. “We didn’t know for sure if these items had been placed in the river with the munitions,” he said.
The centuries-old artifacts ended up in the river in February 1865, when Columbia, the state capital and a strategically important railroad town, was occupied by the Union Army under Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, who marched north to South Carolina after his successful campaign in Savannah, Georgia.
Sherman’s capture of Columbia was brief but chaotic; crowds of Confederate soldiers and townspeople shops and warehouses looted, fires raged and, without an army to defend it against Union forces, the mayor surrendered the city. Much of Columbia was burned to the ground, and the Union Army dumped captured Confederate munitions, including more than a million rounds of bullet ammunition, more than 26,000 pounds of gunpowder, thousands of sabers and bayonets, and even backpacks and tents.
Related: Remains of 4 Confederate soldiers, amputated legs and gold coins found on Virginia Civil War battlefield
The Congaree River was also a dumping ground in more recent times. From 1906 to the mid-1950s, a manufactured gas plant now owned by Dominion Energy, which used coal and oil to produce gas for cooking and heating, created coal tar, a toxic byproduct, which ‘she was dumping into the river.
“Dominion Energy has been advocating for the recovery and preservation of these artifacts since this project began more than 10 years ago,” Norris said, but the presence of unexploded ordnance from the Civil War – live ammunition – made the process difficult.
The river cleanup finally began in the spring of 2022 and was completed in October of this year. Norris and his team recovered many, but not all, types of munitions listed in Civil War inventory records, in addition to Native American arrowheads and more modern junk, like car parts and appliances .
Relics associated with Sherman’s destruction of Columbia that were found during the cleanup include bullets, cannonballs and swords, some of which were displayed at a press conference on November 13. At least one unexploded ordnance was recovered and processed by Shaw Air Force munitions experts. Base.
Although many of the metal objects found by archaeologists were corroded following their decades-long stay in the river, the cleanup project produced a host of artifacts that “helped locate and isolate the extent of the dump Sherman in the Congaree River”, “South Carolina State Underwater Archaeologist James Spirek told Live Science in an email. The newly discovered artifacts also “add a bit more detail to the events surrounding Union troops’ disposition of war materiel in the river,” Spirek added.
The Civil War munitions dump site is already eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, but more information may become available. “We are now in the final stages of testing and recovery,” Norris said.