We've got a Runner!

Underwater Archaeologists Identify A Civil War Era Shipwreck Near Wilmington
May 17, 2016 

A shipwreck discovered by the North Carolina Office of State Archaeology and the Institute for International Maritime Research has been identified as a Confederate steam ship sunk near the end of the Civil War.

The 225-foot-long wreck sitting 27 miles downstream of Wilmington at the mouth of the Cape Fear River is most likely the Agnes E. Fry, a blockade runner used to sneak goods in and out of Wilmington to keep the Confederate economy going.

"A new runner is a really big deal," said Billy Ray Morris, Deputy State Archaeologist-Underwater and Director of the Underwater Archaeology Branch, in a press release. "The state of preservation on this wreck is among the best we've ever had."

DiversUnderwater archaeologists first saw the wreck on February 27 with sonar as part of an effort to learn more about the naval side of the Battle of Fort Fisher. A few days later, divers investigated the wreck in limited visibility waters and were able to verify the length and width of the boat and that its paddlewheel and two engines were missing.  

All of this evidence pointed to Agnes E. Fry as the identity of the ship. The long, narrow dimensions of the hull mark the ship as a blockade runner, and of the three runners known to have sunk near Wilmington, only the Agnes E. Fry was large enough to match the wreck. The missing pieces also correspond to salvage records of the Agnes E. Fry.

"Every piece of evidence we have examined to date, from sonar images to primary documentation, points directly to this shipwreck being Agnes E. Fry," Institute of International Maritime Archaeology director Dr. Gordon Watts said in a press release.

To close the case, the archaeologists are borrowing a 3D sonar apparatus from the Charlotte Fire Department that can map the whole wreck site in a few days. Underwater archaeologists, rescue divers from Charolotte and sonar experts from the Nautilus Marine Group used the new tool to create a 3D map of the shipwreck at high resolution. Analysis of those images will allow underwater archeologists to make detailed plans to explore the wreck in the murky water around the site.

On initial dives, researchers have recovered a deck light and what might have been a knife handle from the wreckage, but the new maps should allow them to find much, much more.

Fully exploring the ship and salvaging its cargo would conclude a story that began more than 150 years ago with a blockade and a wartime economy.

Prior to the Civil War, the economy of the South relied mainly on the production and export of raw materials like cotton, tobacco and rice, while the North was more reliant on manufacturing.

When the war began, Union generals knew that in order to keep its economy going and bring in war supplies, many of which were primarily made in the North, they would have to trade with other countries. So they planned to set a blockade that would keep trading ships from entering or leaving Southern ports. This move was called the Anaconda Plan.

In order to keep the economy going and the soldiers provisioned, the Confederacy bought special ships designed to get past or “run” the Union blockade. They tended to be long, narrow and not very high, and painted a dark color toBlockade Runner avoid being seen at night or dusk.  

While a 200-plus-foot-long, iron-hulled paddle steamer may not seem like the fastest ship in the world, in their day they could outrun most union ships, and the ones they could not outrun, they would lose in clouds of smoke or gathering dusk.

In fact, until the last years of the war, both Confederate and English entrepreneurs would pour huge sums of money into building these ships because the trade was lucrative and so few ships were ever caught.

The Agnes E. Fry was one such ship. Built in Scotland in 1864 and captained by Joseph Fry who named it after his wife, it successfully penetrated the blockade around Wilmington three times before running aground less than a year later. Even still the Crenshaw Brothers firm, who owned the ship, more than broke even in so few trips.

Not long after the Agnes E. Fry sank, Fort Fisher fell to the Union, leaving Wilmington, the last Confederate port on the Atlantic Ocean, open to the Union and closing the door on the vast majority of blockade running. These ships, however, played a vital role in the Civil War and with the discovery of the remains of the Agnes E. Fry, we can learn more about this less famous part of American History.

—Daniel Lane

Daniel Lane covers science, medicine, engineering and the environment in North Carolina.