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ECU surveys Civil War blockade runners

(Feb. 28, 1994)   —   East Carolina University will study the remains of several blockade runners that sank near Wilmington, N.C. during the American Civil War.
The two-year project, conducted jointly with the Underwater Archaeology Unit of the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources, will produce the first detailed studies of the wrecks. The project could also lead to developing one or more of the wreck sites as the state’s first historical shipwreck underwater park.
Gordon P. Watts Jr., the director of underwater archaeology for ECU’s graduate program in Maritime History and Nautical Archaeology, said that more than 30 of these steam commerce vessels sank in the vicinity of Wilmington. He said ECU will carefully survey and assess only six of the vessels that sank or ran aground within a mile of the Fort Fisher Historic Site.
A $17, 205 grant from the National Park Service will support the work. The project will begin in July.
While the remains of the vessels represent unique features of one of the most significant battlefields of the Civil War, Watts said no details of the wrecks exist.
He said he and graduates students will do an assessment of the surviving vessel structure and will develop a management plan to protect the remains of the shipwrecks. He said the plan will address the possibility of developing one or more of the wrecks as an underwater park for recreational scuba divers.
In addition, the study will gather information for an interpretive program about the blockade runners. The program will become a feature at the Fort Fisher site.
The fort was a powerful Confederate bastion through most of the war years. It protected an ocean inlet to Wilmington, one of the South’s primary seaports.
Although the Union Navy attempted to block trade vessels from entering the Wilmington port, the South and British built a fleet of ocean racers to defy the blockade.
Some of the ships made it through and delivered their cargoes unscathed. More than 30 others sank, ran aground or beached themselves in the Atlantic surf.
Fort Fisher fell during an amphibious assault by federal troops in Jan. 1865. The capture virtually closed the Wilmington port and North Carolina to Confederate maritime trade.