Team to search for Civil War ironclad’s artifacts in the Neuse River near Kinston

akenney@newsobserver.comMarch 8, 2014 

— The CSS Neuse is a rare piece of Civil War history – a remarkably intact ironclad ship freed 50 years ago from the Neuse River. Now the state’s archaeologists are going back for more.

On Monday morning, a 23-foot boat will sweep sonar waves and a magnetic-field instrument over a half-mile stretch of the river near Kinston, searching for parts of the Confederate ship, including a propeller, an anchor and a cannon.

“People have been up and down the river bank for years and years searching – but things that are underwater, lost in the mud, maybe couldn’t be found,” said Steve Claggett, state archaeologist for North Carolina.

The renewed search comes 149 years to the month after rebel troops lit the iron-armored gunboat aflame to keep it from the Union. The sunken boat was searched for salvage in 1865, and its hulk was pulled from the river in 1963, but the boat’s modern caretakers think their predecessors left plenty behind.

“The work that we’re doing is the first comprehensive search using some pretty sophisticated methods,” Claggett said.

The plan has come together quickly. The CSS Neuse’s new home – a museum opened to the public last year – hosted a meeting on Wednesday to bat around ideas. Among the crowd was Billy Ray Morris, the state’s underwater archaeologist.

“We met about 10 o’clock, and by noon, he said, ‘Hey, when can we do this?’ ” said Matt Young, manager of the CSS Neuse Civil War Interpretive Center.

With the river running high – up to 20 feet deep and 300 feet wide – it’s a good time for research, in part because sonar works better with more water, Morris said. He and his team will pile into a Chevrolet Suburban, haul their small research boat up from the Wilmington area and put in near U.S. 70 in Kinston about 10 a.m. Monday.

The boat’s side-scan sonar device will use sound waves to pick out shapes underwater, while its magnetometer will search for traces of iron. They expect to announce early findings at 4 p.m. on the same day.

Any discoveries will have to stay at the bottom of the river for now, but the museum hopes to raise any newfound artifacts eventually. The state already knows where to find part of the “casemate” structure that sat atop the ship.

Those undiscovered pieces might help historians understand how Civil War ships were built and how they performed. The CSS Neuse already is the most intact commissioned Confederate ironclad around, Young said.

“There are not a whole lot of Civil War gunships that are intact,” Morris said. “Not surprisingly, there are not a lot of plans. They were building these out in the field and shoving them into the river.”

The CSS Neuse saw about a year of service, though it fired its guns in combat only once and rarely strayed far from Kinston, according to histories of the craft.

Part of the excitement for the ill-fated craft, Young said, is the fact that it was the cutting-edge technology of the day. The Civil War represented the first combat deployments of the armored ships and a new era for naval warfare.

“For 150 years ago, they were very revolutionary technology,” Young said. “People don’t associate the Civil War with advanced technology.”

He hopes that the new search will turn up the most revolutionary part of the ironclad – the iron.

The museum today has six pieces of armor plate, some weighing more than 1,200 pounds, Young said, but hundreds more have been taken from the boat or sit at the bottom of the Neuse.

If Monday’s mission finds the armor pieces – or any other artifacts – Young hopes to raise enough money to take them from the river.

Kenney: 919-829-4870; Twitter: @KenneyNC

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