Discovery of the Georgiana by E. Lee Spence

Mystery ship of the Confederacy

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When I was a teenager, I read about and dreamed of finding the wreck of the Civil War steamer Georgiana. She had been lost on her maiden voyage while attempting to run past the United States naval blockading squadron at Charleston, South Carolina. I wanted to find her because I had read that she was the most powerful Confederate cruiser ever built. Even though we then lived no where near Charleston, I started researching everything I could find relating to the wreck. We moved to Charleston the summer after my Junior year of high school. I located her in 1966, but kept it a secret for several more years, eventually salvaging tons of valuable artifacts. South Carolina’s law on shipwrecks was passed as a result of my discovery and subsequent efforts to get the salvage rights to this wreck.

THE DISCOVERY

The wind was blowing hard from the east, bringing warm, clear, blue water in from the Gulf Stream. Portuguese man-of-war jellyfish and clumps of Saragosa seaweed floated over the huge waves. The shrimp boat lurched on its anchor line in the shallow water.
I climbed awkwardly over the side and dropped down into the trough of a wave. I swam down past the few remaining deck supports into the shattered cargo hold. Encrusted artifacts lay everywhere.
A pile of almost indistinguishable cannon balls lay near two small cannon, and rows of blue edged dinner plates encrusted with coral and sea worms sat protruding from the sand. I picked up a cylindrical shaped object and scraped away the thick marine growth. It was a clay beer bottle still corked and sealed. It dated from the 1860’s, time of the “Late War of Northern Aggression.”
I was on the wreck I wanted. Elated with the satisfaction of a successful quest, I gave a conquerer’s yell, even though I was underwater and there was no one to hear me but the fish and crabs. I had discovered the resting place of the Georgiana, “mystery ship of the Confederacy.”
One of Blakely solid shot (cannon balls) recovered from the wreck. Photo by Lee Spence © 1974.

THE BEAUTY OF THE WRECK

The sunlight reflected brightly on the sand. Purple sea urchins crawled slowly over the wreckage, which was colorfully decorated with patches of coral, sea whips, sea anemones and sponges. I was in a visual paradise. I also saw an abundance of sea bass, grouper, sheepshead and flounder.

THE GEORGIANA’S GONE WITH THE WIND TREASURE

The treasure I sought was not only gold, but history. The Georgiana was the most powerful Confederate cruiser ever built, and she was my discovery. The Georgiana’s loss on March 19, 1863, in fourteen feet of water off of the Isle of Palms, South Carolina, was a serious blow to the Confederacy. Built in Great Britain, the steamer had been lost on its maiden voyage with a contraband cargo consisting of hundreds of tons of assorted merchandise, munitions and medicines, which had been purchased for today’s equivalent of approximately two million dollars.
The cargo was reported to have been owned by John Fraser & Company (also known as Fraser & Company). John Fraser & Company was a Charleston based blockade-running firm that acted as a conduit for Confederate funds and supplies. The company was headed by a tall handsome Charleston, named George Alfred Trenholm. Trenholm was said to have been the richest man in the South and was the historical basis for Margaret Mitchell Gone With The Wind character, Rhett Butler.
To me, anything that had been owned by the “Real Rhett Butler” would be a treasure worth finding. In fact, to me, the tiny brass sewing pins, I was to eventually recover, were among the most precious items to come of the wreck. I truly felt that the pins deserved to be treasured far more than port holes and brass valves. The pins, which during the Civil War would have “been hoarded like precious jewels” were among the items named in Gone With The Wind as having been smuggled through the blockade by Rhett Butler.
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THE DAY AFTER THE DISCOVERY

The discovery was a dream come true. It didn’t bother me when I returned the following day and learned that the crystal clear waters had been a once-in-a-decade occurrence for that area.

Spence examines crates of tinned iron that were stacked in front of the aft bulkhead in the forward cargo hold of the “Georgiana.” The usually poor visibility (this was taken on one of the better days) on the wreck not only limited underwater photography it greatly hampered the work. The divers did most of their work by touch. The thought of blindly putting your hand on a sea urchin or fingers into the gaping mouth of a toad fish greatly slowed the divers. Photo by Kevin Rooney, all rights reserved by Spence.
The wind howled from the north. The now icy waters churned dark and foreboding. Mud swirled around the wreck, boiling to the surface in a brown plume. I bumped or rather was slammed into one piece of wreckage after another. Suddenly I no longer thought that sea urchins were quaint as I felt a dozen sharp spines sink into my hand. I groped blindly, my hand closed around an eel. I jerked my arm back in momentary terror. It was all I could do to conquer my fears.
I slowly reached out again. This time I felt a storage jar. Visions of Cousteau filling amphoras with air and floating them to the surface raced through my head. I pushed my regulator into the mouth of the large clay urn, feeling something give as I did it. By purging my regulator I filled the jar and prepared to float to the surface. I would look like a hero returning with his prize. As I closed my lips around the mouthpiece I gagged and vomited, letting the urn make its own unescorted way to the surface. I wasn’t a hero. The solid I had hit with my regulator was a large cork. I had unwittingly pushed the cork down into the jar, which still contained medicine. Unfortunately, the contents hadn’t aged well during the past century. It was extremely foul tasting, and a lesson I wouldn’t forget.
The next jar had already lost its cork and I pulled it it from the sucking mud with a short-lived glow of triumph. This one was inhabited by a very large and obnoxious toad-fish which decided that my fingers were the day’s chow. A blinding flash of pain had me temporarily convinced that my fingers were gone, but they remained. The toad-fish, like countless of his evil looking brothers, ended up being brutally hacked to death with an archeologist’s pick.
Lee passes a large storage jar up to Steve Howard.

EARLY AMBITION

My involvement with the Georgiana goes back to when I was twelve years old. I was living in France and had just read Captain Jacques Yves Cousteau’s book La Monde du Silence (The Silent World) and had decided I wanted to be a diver, or to be more precise, an underwater archeologist. I wanted to find shipwrecks, but first I had to learn about them.

RESEARCHING THE GEORGIANA’S STORY

A friend told me that I ought to look at government records at the American school library. He said I would find what I needed among the red tape that even our ancestors had to face. The librarian showed me a set of books printed by the government in the late 1800’s. The books were a verbatim compilation of some of the Civil War records stored by the National Archives. The set had the awesome title of The Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion. There was a separate series of books for Naval records. The librarian simply called them the “O.R.” The entire set contained over 160,000 pages of text, sketches, maps and photos. The books were inadequately indexed, but I did manage to locate a tremendous amount of information on shipwrecks.
One wreck in particular caught my fancy. It was the wreck of the Georgiana. I decided to research and locate her. I didn’t worry with the little details, like the fact that the Georgiana had sunk hundreds of miles from where I lived, or that I was only a kid and with no boat and no way to get there. It didn’t even occur to me to worry about whether or not she had already been found and salvaged. Instead, I plunged head first into my project with the absolute devotion only a youngster can muster. My friends called me a bookworm and regarded me as some sort of a nut as I began to spend my hours reading musty reports and records.
In the “O.R.” I found day-by-day, minute-by-minute accounts of virtually every event that had taken place during the war. These books were simply the tip of the iceberg of red tape I had been told about. I copied down every mention of the Georgiana. I examined each report for clues. One report mentioned a letter from the United States Consul in Glasgow where the ship was built. I remembered seeing a box of microfilm titled “Consular Dispatches” on one of the other shelves in the library. I relocated it and found a separate roll of film for Glasgow, Scotland. I put it on the microfilm reader and started scanning until I found the year I wanted. Then I poured over the barely legible handwriting looking for mentions of the Georgiana. Instead, I found detailed reports on a ship called the Louisiana. The United States Consul at Glasgow had watched her during the entire course of her construction, but had been unable to find anyone who had signed on as a crew-member. The Consul was convinced from her name and appearance that the vessel was being built as a Confederate cruiser. Under international law it was illegal for a neutral country like Great Britain to allow a belligerent to construct a warship. But more evidence was needed before the United States government representatives could approach the British authorities and demand they inspect the steamer and stop her from sailing. The American Consul had to find people who would swear that they had been hired to fight as crew aboard the vessel.
There was virtually nothing in the early dispatches about the Georgiana. The Consul simply reported rumors about her. The American Consul could not locate the shipyard where she was being constructed. It seemed the Georgiana was some sort of a ghost ship. Men were being hired to man her, but no one had actually seen her. One man hired to sail on the “mystery ship” had even been a gunner in the Crimean War.
The Consul pieced the puzzle together a little too late. By the time the Consul realized the Georgiana and the Louisiana were one and the same, it was too late to organize a successful effort to stop the vessel from sailing. The Consul made a last ditch effort to get the steamer condemned by the Liverpool police, but failed when the detectives sent to inspect her turned out to be Confederate sympathizers. The detectives swore the Georgiana was not designed for fighting and said she was so lightly built that “she would shake from stem to stern if a gun were fired from her decks”. The report gave the ship’s crew a day’s grace, as it was Saturday and no other evidence could be gathered until the custom’s office opened on Monday morning. The Georgiana wisely sailed with the tide on Sunday.
Upon learning this, I immediately wrote the Liverpool Police Department requesting a search of their files for any reports they might still have. Someone at the police department wrote back giving me such data as the middle name and birthplace of the captain, things that even his best friend probably hadn’t known when he was alive. It seems “big Brother” was watching even then. My friend had certainly been right about the red tape being helpful. It seemed that the only reports not filed in duplicate were those filed in triplicate, and most of them had survived. I was finding a wealth of data.
The government records and hangs onto everything. The trick is to know what information to ask for and where to write for it. The registrar of ships at the Customs Office in Glasgow searched his records for me and came up with the Georgiana’s measurements and a few other choice morsels. “Lloyd’s of London” had rated her as A-1 for insurance purposes and had also confirmed certain details as to her size and construction. Contacting the public libraries in Liverpool proved to be another good source. One librarian dug out newspaper accounts describing the Georgiana as pierced for fourteen guns with a partial crew of over one hundred and forty men, which if true, would have meant she was almost twice as powerful as the Alabama, the most famous commerce destroyer of them all. 
Every new report brought new answers, new questions and dozens of clues. Various reports stated that the ship’s officers wore the gold braid of the Confederate Navy and when she arrived at Liverpool she was flying the “Rebel” flag. The Georgiana was said to have been a “very superior steamer”, with her top speed described anywhere from 12, to over 14 knots. The vessel’s long, low, black, lap strake hull was built of iron. The steamer had heavily raked masts and was brig rigged. The Georgiana’s hull, bowsprit, jib-boom and smokestack were all painted black. The Georgiana’s clipper bow sported the figurehead bust of a woman. The figurehead, the poop deck and the iron rails around the poop deck were all painted white. The ship’s name was blazoned in carved gilt letters on her round stern. The New York Times reported her as more powerful than the Alabama and the Oreto (Florida).
I checked dispatches and customs records from the various ports at which the Georgiana stopped to take on coal and supplies. Various reports showed the steamer posing as a privately armed merchant vessel, a British man-of-war, and even as a warship built for the emperor of China. One thing became clear, the ship and her crew were intent on entering the privateering trade. But first the ship had to run into a port where her crew could take time to properly mount her guns.
Only two guns were mounted on the steamer’s decks, and they were not yet fully serviceable. The Georgiana’s other guns were still sitting in her cargo holds. The only ports where the raider could finish mounting her armament unmolested were in the South. Union spies cabled secret messages advising the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron that the Georgiana was on her way to Charleston, South Carolina. Besides her own armament, the steamer may have carried up to five hundred and eighty tons of valuable cargo. The Georgiana’s contraband cargo was made up of rifles; musket balls; two, state of the art Whitworth breech loading cannon, four Blakely rifled cannon, medicines, liquor, china and other assorted merchandise. The Georgiana also carried ninety thousand dollars in the form of over three hundred and seventy-five pounds of gold coins for payment of her officers and crew, modifications, supplies, etc. The bullion value of the coins would be worth around four and a half million dollars today. The numismatic value could be many times higher.
Artifacts recovered from the Georgiana by Lee Spence. Photo by E. Lee Spence © 1967.

THE GEORGIANA’S DESTRUCTION

Gleaning bits and pieces from the “O.R.”, from contemporary Southern and Northern newspapers, and from other sources, I put together the following story of the Georgiana’s last hours.
Not realizing that her destination and expected time of arrival were already known to the entire blockading squadron, the Georgiana’s crew left Nassau confident of a safe and successful voyage.
The ship’s master was a retired British naval officer by the name of A.B. Davidson (also shown as Dickenson). An experienced captain, Davidson had already taken other ships safely through the thin, but deadly, line of Northern warships. The Georgiana’s captain hoped that the ship would not even be seen as she ran under the cover of darkness. Arriving off Dewees Inlet, to the north of Charleston Harbor, just before 1:00 a.m., March 19, 1863, Captain Davidson, successfully evaded a schooner and a steamer patrolling near the inlet, then turned the Georgiana down the unmarked channel which ran along the present-day Isle of Palms, South Carolina.
The virtually unarmed steamer had already safely traveled over four thousand miles and was only ten miles from the Confederate forts and safety. The Georgiana had barely made the turn into the channel when the smoke billowing from her stack was spotted by a lookout aboard the United States armed yacht America (namesake of the “America’s Cup” of sailboat racing fame). The America immediately fired at the Georgiana with her 24-pounder Dahlgren boat howitzers, slipped anchor to give chase, and sent up colored signal flares to alert the fleet.
The Georgiana had fallen victim to a bureaucratic economy move. The engines were burning cheap bituminous coal rather than the more expensive, almost smokeless, anthracite coal, which Captain Davidson had wanted to carry.
Not giving up, the Georgiana steamed onwards, hoping her speed could help her elude the heavily armed, but slower, ships of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron. The United States steamer Wissahickon, flagship of the fleet, came into view and swung alongside of the Georgiana. The men aboard the cruiser heard the orders being given aboard the Federal ship. The Confederates could do nothing when they heard the Yankee captain yell which way to trail the big guns and when to fire. Solid shot, eleven inches in diameter, passed through one side and out the other, leaving jagged holes in the Rebel steamer’s iron hull.
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Crewmembers of the USS Wissahickon by the ship’s Dahlgren XI-inch pivot gun.

Captain Davidson ordered the steam release valves tied down in an effort to increase boiler pressureand thereby added a couple extra knots of speed. The ship’s boiler was dangerously overloaded. It was almost a suicidal effort, but it was hope. The Georgiana moved on, increasing her distance from the Wissahickon. She was escaping. The Wissahickon was now joined by the Housatonic (later to become the first ship in history to be sunk by a submarine) and a half dozen other gunboats.
Ahead lay the rest of the fleet of monitors, gunboats and picket boats. Many were already moving in to cut off the Georgiana’s entrance to the harbor. So far, the Confederate ship had managed to survive a half hour of hell. The Georgiana’s men, frustrated by the impracticality of trying to stand and fight back, fired a few token rounds, and cursed the laws that had kept the remainder of her guns from already being fully mounted. Speed was the hunted ship’s only hope. As the distance slowly widened between the fox and the hounds, the Wissahickon fired a lucky shot, striking the Georgiana with an exploding shell under her stern. The Georgiana was crippled.
The Georgiana limped to a stand-still. The crew shut down the steamer’s engines and the smoke ceased to belch forth. Someone showed a white light.
Unknown to the Yankees, Captain Davidson was baiting them. The Yankees interpreted the white light as a sign of surrender. The Wissahicken’s crew cheered and lowered boarding parties to take their prize. The longboats rowed up to the steamer only to be met by a hail of small arms fire as the Georgiana suddenly plowed forward at full speed. The Georgiana’s wily captain had not quenched her fires as it had first appeared. The Confederates had merely diverted the thick smoke into the cargo holds. Davidson had waited until the last possible second and had thrown the Georgiana’s engines back in gear with a full head of steam. The gunboats could not resume fire for fear of hitting their own men.
Knowing the crippled Georgiana had no real way to escape and unwilling to abandon their men in the darkness, the Union ships paused to pick up their boats. Delayed by the ruse, which they considered “the most consummate treachery,” the Federal sailors watched as the Georgiana disappeared into the darkness. As soon as she was out of sight, Captain Davidson turned and headed the Georgiana towards shore. The Georgiana’s captain realized the crippled steamer could never make the safety of Charleston Harbor, but he hoped he could somehow prevent her and her valuable cargo from falling into Federal hands. The tide was low and the steamer ran aground in 14 feet of water, one mile from the beach and three and a half miles from Breach Inlet.
Captain Davidson immediately had the Georgiana’s pipes cut to flood her. Then, as an extra precaution, the crew smashed the ship’s pumps and doused her engine fires. The ship’s bosun ordered the crew to lower the Georgiana’s longboats and abandon ship. The captain, still fearing capture, weighted the ship’s logbook and register and threw them overboard along with the secret dispatches he was carrying. Leaving a white light burning from a mast, the crew sadly rowed to shore. A dream had been shattered. It was not recorded whether the Georgiana’s men were able to save the gold, which may have been hidden beneath heavy cargo.
The Federal ships again caught up with the Georgiana. This time the Union sailors held back, waiting to see if the Confederate ship was again playing possum. The Federals didn’t suspect that the beautiful ship had already been abandoned, or that she was rapidly filling with water.
The Federal boarding crews found a deserted ship, still loaded with hundreds of tons of valuable cargo. The steamer was already filled with water and it was impossible to tow her off. Knowing that they would have to destroy the ship to prevent her recapture, the Federal sailors raced through her grabbing anything they could carry with them. Somehow the sailors managed to locate the ship’s liquor. The life of a Federal sailor was hard at its best and the temptation of the liquor was great and some of the sailors quickly guzzled what they could. Setting fire to the iron hulled steamer’s wooden decks, the Yankee sailors returned to their ship. Seven of the sailors were immediately confined in irons by their own captain for being drunk and disorderly. The ship burned and blew up for three days. Both sides periodically shelled the wreck to keep the other side away. Besides the liquor, the only items reported as recovered were eight Enfield rifles, nine bayonets, eight battle axes, one patent lead and line, ten pounds of glue, five small jars of preserves, twelve gilt buttons, one table cloth, and nineteen sabers.

THE AFTERMATH

There would be no prize money for the Federal sailors to share, but they had managed to stop the Georgiana. The ship was no ordinary blockade-runner. The Georgiana had been the finest Confederate privateer ever built, but now she would never go sailing in search of unarmed merchantmen. The Rebel steamer would never loot the ships of the United States merchant fleet of their precious cargos, burn them or sink them. The Union had sunk what they called a pirate, and the entire Federal blockade fleet had reason to celebrate. United States Secretary of Navy, Gideon Welles, wrote to Rear-Admiral Samuel F. Du Pont, Commanding the United States South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, and said “the destruction of the Georgiana not only touched their pockets, but their hopes. She was a splendid craft, peculiarly fitted for the business of privateering.” 
The Georgiana was a beautiful and very expensive steamer and the South needed her as well as her cargo. The loss of the steamer’s cargo meant that thousands soldiers would go without munitions, medicines and uniforms, and there was no hope that the South could ever build another ship like her.
No wartime government likes to admit their own losses (probably due to a fear that it might create a defeatist attitude), so the Georgiana’s loss was barely mentioned in the Confederate papers. The articles didn’t mention the Georgiana’s gold or that she may have been anything other than a merchant ship.
Lee Spence (left) and the late Ron Gibbs with stacks of dinner plates
found on the second dive on the wreck of the Georgiana. All rights reserved.

THE GEORGIANA’S FIRST VICTIM

The Georgiana’s story wasn’t over. The ghost ship was destined to sink three ships. Unfortunately, for the South, all of them were blockade-runners. The Norseman, a three- masted, iron-hulled, screw steamer, running out of Charleston with a load of cotton, plowed into the wreck of the Georgiana at high-tide. Realizing his ship was sinking, Norseman’s captain turned her bow towards shore but she sank before he could run her aground. When the tide went out, the small steamer was in just eight feet of water and must have looked like she was still afloat. The small steamer’s captain and crew all made it safely to shore. Part of her deck-load of cotton washed ashore so at some of that was saved. After the war, a rumor surfaced that the Norseman (who’s tonnage has been variously reported as forty-nine tons, and one hundred and fifty-four tons) had something (I believe gold) hidden beneath her cargo of cotton. Whatever it was, it was never salvaged due to the sand which immediately washed into the wreck.

THE GEORGIANA’S SECOND VICTIM

On August 31, 1864, the iron-hulled steamer Mary Bowers struck the Georgiana. It was high tide. The Mary Bowers shook. Steel twisted and rivets popped. Thrown to the deck in the crash, Captain Jesse de Horsey, a veteran blockade-runner, was unable to reverse the engines. The giant paddle wheels churned the water. The steamer crawled forward. The Mary Bowers literally heaved herself up on top of the first wreck. She had struck the Georgiana diagonally, crossing through and over the aft end of the forward cargo hold. Abandoned by her crew, the Mary Bowers was discovered the following day by the United States frigate Wabash. The Wabash’s men boarded the wrecked blockade-runner and took her bell (marked 1864), her binnacle and compasses. Once again the sailors liberated a quantity of liquor (always high on the list of things to be salvaged). The Mary Bowers was two hundred and twenty-six feet long and may have been carrying up to six hundred and eighty tons of coal and assorted merchandise. The Mary Bowers had been on her third voyage and had left Bermuda only two days earlier. The Mary Bowers probably carried a significant amount of gold to pay her crew, but whether any gold was actually lost was not recorded.
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USS Wabash

THE GEORGIANA’S THIRD VICTIM

Barely five weeks later, the Georgiana claimed her third victim. This time it was the Constance Decimer sailing from Halifax, Nova Scotia, with a cargo of one hundred and sixty tons of arms and munitions. The Constance is believed to have carried a considerable amount of gold coin to pay her crew and for the purchase of a return cargo of cotton. The Constance was a long, low, iron hulled, sidewheel steamer with fore and aft smokestacks. The Constance was painted a soft gray to blend into the sea fog. It was almost high tide. The Constance was built specifically for blockade running and drew only six feet of water. The unfortunate blockade-runner must have just missed clearing the rusting stern post of the wrecked cruiser. The blow was partially absorbed as the Georgiana’s stern section was pushed over on its side. Captain Stewart felt his ship shudder as she brushed over the wreck and incorrectly assumed he had run too close to shore and was hitting a shell bank. Not suspecting his ship had suffered a death-blow, Captain Stewart turned the steamer’s narrow bow off shore and headed for deeper water. The sea rushed in, alerting the men in the engine room to the pending doom. The crew raced for her boats and rigging. In those last few minutes the ship’s Bosun (deck officer) made a fatal decision. The Bosun rushed below to rescue the gold and papers from the captain’s cabin. The swirling waters rose around the Bosun as he struggled to carry the heavy chest to the hatchway. The Bosun died with the ship, the only known death out of all four wrecks. The Constance was found by the blockade-fleet the next morning. The steamer’s decks were underwater and nothing was saved. The Constance Decimer had come to rest six hundred and forty yards due south of the wrecks of the Georgiana and Mary Bowers.

THE PLUNGE INTO OBSCURITY

When the war ended, the wrecks were occasionally visited by salvors (seeking scrap metal) and possibly by fishermen, but the names and locations of the wrecks soon faded into history. As time went on, no one cared, and soon, no one remembered.
The wrecks had become nameless obstructions, which were known only by a few captains of fishing trawlers, and they looked at them only as a nuisance that routinely cost them lost nets and down time.

THE RESEARCH PROGRESSES

My notes built up. Over a period of years I accumulated hundreds of pages of data relating to the Georgiana. I purchased Coast and Geodetic Survey charts and carefully compared them to an 1865 chart of the same area. I plotted the Georgiana’s position on the old chart by running an imaginary line along the beach the equivalent of one mile from shore. Then I swung an arc three and one half miles from Breach Inlet. The point where the lines intersected was the point where I figured I would one day find the Georgiana. Next, I triangulated the Georgiana’s location from fixed points, which would not have been altered by erosion and the passage of time. Using these points and bearings I transferred the Georgiana’s position to the modern chart. By my calculations the wreck lay roughly off present day 29th street on the Isle of Palms.
Map “Wreck Chart” drawn by Lee Spence showing the location of the wrecks of the Civil War blockade runners Georgiana and Mary Bowers, showing the compass bearings & ranges to landmarks and a cross section of the Georgiana’s hull. © 1978.
I located a copy of the Army Corps of Engineers report for the year 1872. It mentioned that fourteen shipwrecks had been “removed” from the channels around Charleston since the war. I decided to check further to see if the Georgiana was among those cleared. Another Corps of Engineers report gave the names of the ships. The Georgiana’s name wasn’t among them. Later I found a report of a survey made by a diver immediately after the war. It said the wrecks off the Isle of Palms were so badly sanded that their cargos could not be salvaged (although some salvage was done). Since the wrecks lay outside the normal shipping lanes, there had been no need to remove them. Fearing the wrecks might be permanently buried in deep sands I checked geological survey reports. The reports gave the results of coring samples taken at various points off shore. The samples showed hard packed sand alternating with layers of packed shell. The samples told me that the wrecks would have sunk no further than a few feet into the sand, and at times were probably entirely exposed.

CHARLESTON

When I was a sophomore in high school my father solved my distance problem by announcing that the family would move to Charleston. We moved there at the end of my junior year of high school.
Charleston is a fantastic place with its old forts, houses and sea-islands. Crossing the bridges from Charleston to our new home on Sullivan’s Island, I easily spotted the remnants of several shipwrecks in the shallow tidal waters. I immediately made contact with some of the local divers who confirmed that they had never located any of the wrecked blockade-runners.

AIRBORNE SEARCH

I started renting small airplanes under the pretext of taking private flying lessons. Many hours were spent flying nauseatingly tight circles over the shallow waters off the Isle of Palms. Several times I spotted dark shadows and plumes of billowing silt. Some proved to be schools of fish, others appeared to be obstructions on the otherwise flat ocean floor.
My research convinced me that several of these shadows were actually the wrecks I sought.

THE GEORGIANA IS FOUND AT LAST

I then contacted numerous local trawl fishermen, asking each whether he had ever snagged his nets on anything near the shadows and mud plumes I had spotted. Several said they had, but had they no idea whether the obstructions were natural or man-made, or, if wrecks, whether they were old or new. Walter Shaffer, captain of the fishing trawler Carol El, seemed the most knowledgeable. Captain Shaffer agreed to help me search for several of the larger hangs. I hoped that one spot in particular would prove not only to be a shipwreck but would actually be the combined wreckage of the Georgiana and the Mary Bowers. The next weekend we headed out to the area of the most promising shadow.
We began dragging a grappling device trying to snag anything that might be protruding from the bottom. We drug back and forth for about two and a half hours before we hooked into something. I suited up and dove into the water. I was on the Georgiana and Mary Bowers.
I located the Constance Decimer the same day.
A few months later I arranged to put divers down on the shadow that I had already tentatively identified as the Norseman. It was.
These jars and bottles were recovered by Lee Spence from the wreck of the Civil War blockade runner Georgiana. They were still packed in barrels when found. Photo by E. Lee Spence © 1969.
THE GEORGIANA AND MARY BOWERS TODAY
Today the Georgiana sits on the bottom with her huge boiler only five feet below the surface at low tide.
The Mary Bowers crashed through the Georgiana’s hull forward of the Georgiana’s boiler and sits through and across the forward cargo hold of that wreck.
The shattered privateer is now plumed with a glorious array of sea fans and living corals. Large sections of her hull are still intact and in places the starboard hull protrudes nine or ten feet from the sand.
Under the mud and sand lies even more of the hull of the iron ship. Much of the Georgiana’s cargo, still in perfect condition, rested, buried, cradled by the silt that had infiltrated the wreck.
The Mary Bowers’ sides have broken out and her cargo has been swept away. Several portholes set in an open position stick up from the sand covering her flattened sides.
The Mary Bowers seems poor company for her more majestic companion, which she partially covers.

IMPORTANCE & NEGLECT OF THE WRECK SITE

This wreck site is extremely important both historically and archaeology. It is important historically because of the emphasis both sides placed on the Georgiana as a potential threat to United States shipping, and archaeologically due to the unusual nature of the site. The site contains two distinct types of of ships, both built of iron, but one built with extra reinforcing and relatively deep draft for operation as a privateer on the high seas and the other of extremely light weight and shallow draft because she was constructed for the express purpose of running the blockade. One is a screw steamer and the other a sidewheel steamer. The two ships were built and lost less than two years apart, making their differences even more significant. Despite the site’s obvious importance and even though a state salvage license had been granted and tens of thousands of artifacts were recovered from the Georgiana/Mary Bowers wreck site, no state official actually dove on the site to inspect it or verify the discovery for over 40 years.

THE THRILL THAT MATTERS

Divers braving the frequent zero visibility salvaged over a million individual artifacts from the Georgiana. The recovered artifacts ranged from extremely rare cannons and cannon balls to glass buttons and tiny sewing pins. The Georgiana’s gold was never located and I believe it still remains on the wreck. Although we found her, we never worked the Norseman, and her treasure might also still be found, but, even finding all of the missing gold wouldn’t give me the thrill I felt on that first dive when I realized, I had discovered the Georgiana.
Kevin Rooney with some of the thousands of buttons salvaged by Spence 

from the wreck of the Civil War blockade runner SS Georgiana. 

Photo by Lee Spence © 1974.

This article was taken from the book Treasures of the Confederate Coast: the “real Rhett Butler” & Other Revelations by Dr. E. Lee Spence, Narwhal Press, ©1995.