March 8, 2016
Civil War-Era Shipwreck Found Near Oak Island, A Vestige Of Union's Blockade

The shipwreck of an iron-hulled, Confederate blockade runner may have been found off the coast of North Carolina near Oak Island, marking the first Civil War-era remains found in the area in decades.

The shipwreck could be one of three runners lost during the Civil War, archaeologist Billy Ray Morris, with the state's Department of Natural and Culture Resources, told Star News Online.

Those three contenders are the Agnes E. Fry, Spunkie, and Georgianna McCaw. Although not entirely certain that the Oak Island shipwreck will be identified as one of these vessels, Morris believes it could be the Fry.

"Nobody's found a new Civil War wreck in decades. With a high-energy maritime environment like you have off the coast of North Carolina, ships are broken apart. This one is relatively intact. You can see that it looks like a ship."

Dive teams will return to the site near Oak Island, with some local university students in tow, to take a closer look and confirm the shipwreck's identity.

The shipwreck was discovered on February 27 by archaeologists on research vessel the Atlantic Surveyor using sonar imaging, the Associated Press reported. The vessel is 226 feet long and was found 27 miles downstream from the city of Wilmington near Fort Caswell and at the mouth of Cape Fear River, Coast Review Online added.

The Fry and the two other Civil War runners were used in this area during the Union blockade of the Port of Wilmington, so the shipwreck is in the correct spot to be one of the three. Historical documents indicate the vessels were there during the Civil War.

During the majority of the Civil War, from 1861 to January 1865, the Union blockaded the port of Wilmington, their purpose to starve the Confederacy of supplies; Wilmington was one of its most important ports. They also wanted to keep the South from exporting cotton and other marketable goods.

Runners moved fast and were manned by an unarmed captain and crew. Their sole purpose was to slip past Union ships blocking the river to get needed goods and military supplies to citizens and Confederate troops.

Once those goods reached land, the military supplies would be loaded onto trains in northern North Carolina and shipped to Gen. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. Any civilian supplies that managed to slip the blockade were sold dockside. These items generally were of value to the wealthy and weren't made in the south, like wine and liquor, fabrics, books, and shoes.

The blockade ended months before the Civil War did. In January 1865, Union troops closed the port and took over Fort Fisher. Researchers have studied this era in Civil War history extensively for the past two years, trying to understand the details of the Fort Fisher campaign. The port was critical to the South -- forts protected the Cape Fear River from the Atlantic at both ends and served as a lifeline to the Confederacy.

Civil War shipwreck found near Oak Island, perfectly preserved by sand
Col. Lamb, blockade-runner. [Image via U.S. Naval Historical Center/Wikimedia Commons]

The shipwreck near Oak Island will do much to illuminate this period in history because the vessel is so well-preserved. Morris said that the shipwreck's pristine condition is a rarity, and archaeologists have sand to thank for its preservation.

"She was sanded over for most of the time she's been laying on the bottom. Now, the sand's been scoured free," he said.

The Oak Island area is known for its copious Civil War-era remains. The wrecks of 27 blockade runners, Confederate ironclads, and Union ships used in this blockade have been found in the area around Cape Fear River and the Atlantic, as well as Oak Island.

"It's the single best assemblage of Civil War shipwrecks anywhere in the world."

The discovery of the Civil War-era shipwreck near Oak Island is part of the project funded by the National Park Service, through the American Battlefield Protection Program.

There is also an Oak Island off the coast of Nova Scotia, Canada, the focus of a History Channel series.

[Image via Gary C. Tognoni/Shutterstock]