During the Civil War, the Union Navy loaded aging whaleships with rocks and towed them south from New England to coastal Georgia and South Carolina.
There the boats were sunk to block key waterways and frustrate blockade runners, small boats designed to elude Union ships and deliver cargo to Confederate states.
Known as the stone fleet, the Union ships were laden with large granite and smooth cobble. What’s left of them resembles a pile of rocks on the ocean floor.
And many are scattered throughout the Lowcountry.
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Aboard a 26-foot aluminum dive boat Friday, a team of underwater archaeologists from the University of South Carolina studied a sonar image of one of the ships in Skull Creek off Hilton Head Island.
“It’s a big mound,” Nate Fulmer said as he navigated the boat with an eye on the screen. “It’s going to be hard to miss.”
When certain they were over the oblong blob, Joe Beatty tossed an anchor overboard on top of the wreck. Beatty has been with the university’s S.C. Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology more than 30 years and is set to retire.
Jim Spirek, a state underwater archaelogist, and volunteer diver Ted Churchill slipped on dive gear and dropped one at a time overboard, feeling along the anchor line as they made their way to the wreck.
In the boat, archaeologists Jessica Irwin and Fulmer monitored surface bubbles and ensured passing boats didn’t veer near the raised red and white flag signaling divers nearby.
The team from the state’s Maritime Research Division was in Beaufort County this week, first surveying for possible Union wrecks in the Beaufort River. And on Friday, they took the short ride from H.E. Trask Sr. Boat Landing to Skull Creek where they knew a member of the stone fleet rested.
The excursion was funded with private dollars from a trust funded by donations from those with an interest in such projects.
Trips like the one Friday serve to gather information. Later, money and public interest might spur a deeper investigation to include excavating some of the wreck.
Or the team might come back with a magnetometer that could add another dimension of data for the researchers in their search for more of the wrecks. The extra equipment comes in handy when tips from fishermen about possible large rockpiles yield nothing.
“We’ll have to come back to Beaufort, hopefully soon,” Irwin said.
Spirek’s reasons for trekking to Beaufort from his Columbia office include more than the stone fleet.
In 1577, the French ship “Le Prince” is said to have wrecked in the Port Royal Sound. Spirek’s search for the wreckage included surveying the sound from 2000-2004, passing a boat back and forth in the water like a lawn mower.
The next step could be to use an airplane to scan the water and save valuable time.
Spirek helped raise the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley from Charleston Harbor and oversaw work to unearth a centuries old canoe off Daufuskie Island.
The projects all require time and money, though the state pays the archaeologists salaries and sprung for the new dive boat that replaced a craft the division had used for three decades. The private Archaeological Research Trust currently holds about $1 million, and the archaeologists compete to earn grants for specific projects.
The work this week in Beaufort County cost about $5,900.
On his dive, Spirek carried a high-definition camera the size of two Folgers coffee cans. A smaller GoPro he had previously used was recently stolen from his office.
While the small action camera was more convenient, the larger camera produces better video, Irwin said. Despite the murky Lowcountry water as the last of the tide went out, the divers spotted white sponge and yellow and purple sea whips.
Time has turned the piles into a sort of artificial reef, Spirek noted. He appreciates the water’s ability to preserve history.
There is little evidence of the wooden Union ships among the rocks. But underneath the sediment, archaeologists imagine the vessel remains largely intact.
Spirek and Churchill spotted small pieces of copper metal in the structure Friday morning, like what was used on the hull of the ships. A deeper look could yield utensils and other long-buried cargo.
“A lot of things are well-preserved under water,” Spirek said, noting the human remains found in the Hunley. “... Seeing and feeling and touching history.”