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Did anyone ever explore the wreck of the CSS North Carolina?

Ben Steelman
CSS North Carolina ironclad

A model of the CSS North Carolina ironclad. (Photo courtesy Battleship North Carolina Memorial)

The Confederate ironclad, which sank off Southport on Sept. 27, 1864, has been pretty well picked over through the years. Iron-hungry Confederates salvaged much of its iron plate soon after it went down. More iron was salvaged in 1868, according to contemporary accounts in  the Wilmington Morning Star, and in 1871, the remains of the wreck were burned to the water line.

In 1975, Gordon P. Watts Jr. and a team from the University of North Carolina Wilmington confirmed the wreck’s location – in the Cape Fear River off the north end of Battery Island near Southport – using barymetric profiles and a magnetometer. The wreck lies at a depth of between 12 and 18 feet, depending on the tides.

A further magnetometer survey was done in 1980 by the N.C. Underwater Archaeology Unit (now the Underwater Archaeology Branch), based at Fort Fisher.

In 1993, the Underwater Archaeology Unit did three days of diving on the wreck as part of its river survey, recovering a few artifacts. A further dive in 1995 confirmed that a 15,000-pound anchor had been dropped onto the surviving hull structure.

The most significant surveys of the wreck were done by Tidewater Atlantic Research Inc. of Washington, N.C., for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, with major dive surveys in June 1996, and June and July 1997. Gordon P. Watts Jr. was back as principal investigator.

By this time, all that was left of the ironclad were portions of the lower hull below the bilge line. Divers identified the keel and some structures such as tanks, which were left on the site. They also recovered a limited number of artifacts, including copper valves and fittings, and shards of stoneware and glass. Reports filed with the Army Corps of Engineers noted that the wreck was substantially deteriorated and had been damaged by modern-day encounters (such as that 15,000-pound anchor).

Because of the wreck’s generally poor condition – the North Carolina suffered severe damage from teredo worms, or shipworms, eating its timbers, even before its sinking – the chances of it being raised, like the CSS Neuse at Kinston, are exceedingly remote.

The CSS North Carolina had what historians have described as a “brief and uneventful” career. Ordered by the Confederate Navy Department, it was built at the Beery shipyard in Wilmington, according to a plan developed by shipbuilder John L. Porter in the 1840s and adapted for Confederate use.

Like its sister ship the CSS Raleigh, also built at Wilmington, it was considered part of the so-called “Richmond” class, after the ironclad CSS Richmond.

The vessel was 150 feet long, with a 13-foot draft and a displacement of about 700 tons. Its armament consisted of six 8-inch guns, which could be moved to ports on either the port or starboard sides, with a pivot gun on the bow. Its complement was roughly 150 officers and men. Armor plate 2 inches thick covered its decks, with 4-inch armor on its casemates. (The iron was recovered from a railroad in Georgia.) The cost of construction was put at $76,000.

From the start, bad luck seemed to dog the North Carolina. Construction was delayed by the yellow fever epidemic which hit Wilmington in the autumn of 1862, causing most of the shipyard workers to flee. The Beery brothers had trouble obtaining good timber and were forced to use unseasoned green pine; as a result, key planks warped and split soon after the vessel was completed in June 1863.

Worse, the North Carolina had an extremely weak engine, salvaged from a 163-ton tugboat, the Uncle Ben. It soon became clear that the ironclad could barely propel itself and was hopeless at navigating river currents. In a letter, one sailor wrote, “I want to get on a ship that can get along without having to be towed every where she goes.”

Since it couldn’t maneuver, the North Carolina was deployed off Smithville (as Southport was known prior to 1889) as a floating battery to guard the entrance to the Cape Fear River.

Conditions aboard were apparently lousy, even after the installation of extra pumps. In June 1864, another sailor aboard wrote, “Our ship is not worth much, her decks are beginning to give way so much that we can hardly work the guns. I don’t think we can last 6 months longer.” Navy reports frequently noted shipworm damage and warned that the ship would soon sink – which it finally did on Sept. 27, 1864.

Edwin L. Combs of East Carolina University, who wrote the article on CSS North Carolina for the Encyclopedia of North Carolina, argued that the ironclad did hold value as a deterrent. Union forces did not know about the vessel’s poor condition and feared it would be as formidable as its sister sister, the CSS Albemarle, which caused considerable damage to Union forces on the Roanoke River near Plymouth, N.C. Combs argues that its presence likely delayed attacks on Fort Fisher.

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