Union troops dumped more than 1 million ball cartridges and 26,000 pounds of gunpowder into the Congaree River during the capture of Columbia in February 1865.
More than 150 years ago, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman triumphantly smashed through the South as the Civil War neared its end. Now, a clean-up project in South Carolina has dredged up a number of Confederate weapons that Sherman’s troops dumped in the Congaree River to demoralize their vanquished foes.
The items include cannonballs, bullets, rusty swords, and even a piece of unexploded ordnance that had to be “demilitarized” at nearby Shaw Air Force Base.
“It’s an interesting story to tell,” Sean Norris, the archaeological program manager at environmental consulting firm TRC remarked to CBS News. “It’s a good one — that we were able to take a real piece of it rather than just the written record showing this is what happened.”
As Norris explained to Live Science, the presence of these items wasn’t a complete surprise. Norris noted that underwater investigations had “indicated the presence of multiple types of cannonballs and projectiles as well as hundreds, if not thousands of musket rounds.” However, it’s only now that these items have been recovered from the water as the project to clean up toxic waste in the Congaree River comes to a close.
That project, which lasted from early 2022 until October 2023, was focused on cleaning up coal tar which had been dumped in the river in the first half of the 20th century by a local gas company. But the project also turned up a number of historic artifacts.
“We removed an additional two and half tons of other debris out of the river. You get focused on coal tar and yes we took care of the coal tar but you also had other trash,” Keller Kissam, the president of Dominion Energy, which oversaw the clean-up project, explained WLTX.
In addition to these Civil War items, the clean-up project also dredged up Native American items like arrowheads as well as modern debris like car parts. But the Civil War objects in particular paint an evocative picture of a dramatic point in the course of the conflict.
Sherman and his troops arrived in Columbia, South Carolina in February 1865 during the tail end of Sherman’s famous “March to the Sea.” At the end of 1864, Sherman had captured Atlanta, Georgia before triumphantly marching through Savannah, and then turning his attention to South Carolina, a symbolically important state as the site of the start of the Civil War.
Sherman quickly captured Columbia after Confederate General Wade Hampton and his men evacuated it and fires soon consumed the city. Though Sherman claimed that the fires were started by fleeing Confederates and not by his own troops, he later coolly remarked, “Though I never ordered it and never wished it, I have never shed any tears over the event, because I believe that it hastened what we all fought for, the end of the War.”
During this time, he and his men also dumped captured Confederate munitions into the Congaree River. These included more than 1 million ball cartridges and 26,000 pounds of gunpowder as well as thousands of sabres and bayonets, plus backpacks and tents.
The items recovered from the river are expected to find a home at the South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum in the state capital of Columbia, once they’ve been examined and processed. There, South Carolina politicians are hopeful that they will tell a powerful story about the state’s history.
“All those things are lost on us today. They seem like just stories from the past,” South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster told CBS News. “But when we read about those, and when we see artifacts, and see things that touched people’s hands, it brings us right back to how fortunate we are in this state and in this country to be where we are.”
After reading about the Civil War weapons that were fished out of South Carolina’s Congaree River, discover the little-known story of the Civil War’s all-Black 54th Massachusetts Regiment. Or, learn about John Clem, the 12-year-old soldier who enlisted in the Civil War.