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Efforts to find CSS Neuse remnants delayed... again


INTRO – It’ll be at least July until state underwater archaeologists can do a survey of the Neuse River to see if any additional remnants from the ironclad CSS Neuse remain. George Olsen has more.

It’s almost as if any remnants of the CSS Neuse that remain in the Neuse River are determined to stay there. In March the R/V Snap Dragon was slated to come to Kinston and use its side scan sonar and magnetometer and other tools to map an area between the King Street and Queen Street bridges for possible artifacts left behind when the CSS Neuse was scuttled by Confederate troops in 1865. But in March, river levels were too high. They tried again in April… river levels STILL too high, and the expedition was called off indefinitely until this week. The Snap Dragon was due to hit the water this past Tuesday.

     “But I got an e-mail yesterday from the assistant of state underwater archaeology who said, hey, on Friday when we were doing some diving work off the coast on some blockade runners we noticed that our brakes were kind of funky and I went and checked them today and they were in fact not working, and of course they are based out of Kure Beach and we’re in Kinston, about a 2-hour drive, and they said we wouldn’t have any brakes on our boat trailer. We just don’t feel bringing Snap Dragon 2-hours without brakes on the trailer so it looks like we’ll have to reschedule for sometime after the beginning of the fiscal year which starts July 1.”

Matthew Young, site manager for the CSS Neuse & Governor Richard Caswell Memorial in Kinston. The CSS Neuse Memorial is part of the state Division of Historic Sites, which explains the post-July 1 date… the state fiscal year ends June 30 and this year’s fiscal appropriations are already running low so they’ll wait until a new appropriation hits. Come that time Young hopes they can build on some amateur historical efforts by a gentleman who’s been involved with CSS Neuse restoration efforts since its hull was pulled from the Neuse River in the 1960s.

     “There was a gentleman here in the 1960s by the name of Bill Rowland, … he’s a WWII veteran, worked at DuPont chemical, and he had taken the time when they were recovering the boat to take as many measurements as he could, kind of documenting the process, and he’s always been interested in the past 50 years in the history of the gunboat. When the river was low a few years ago he was out exploring and thought he’d found a part of the casemate of the ship. He took a few pictures of it and investigated it and sure enough that’s what we think it is.”

So they expect … or hope… to find a casemate that housed the CSS Neuse’s guns. Beyond that, there’s plenty of hope and mystery.

     “What we’re basing it on is we have a very good idea of how she looked, what she was equipped with when she was destroyed by her crew in 1865. What we don’t know is what exactly was salvaged off her in the late part of 1865 and 1866. The federal government declared it as damaged, surplus property, awarded a contract to a firm in NY that actually came out and removed armor plate off the ship, probably got her anchor, her chain, her engines, her boilers, and probably removed the cannons. What we don’t know is an inventory of what they recovered. That’s the missing link. We don’t know what they got. There were six pieces of armor plate that were recovered in the 1960s, and we have a feeling there may be more that fell off the sides or was damaged somehow and got pulled off and fell in the river, so we’re hoping with the magnetometer and the side scan sonar we can find those pieces.”

If something… or some things… is found, chances are decent that it could be in salvageable condition… the advantage of being lost in fresh water as compared to the corrosive effects of salt water. And to some degree, the better “lost” the item, the better likelihood it could come out of the water relatively intact.

    “The condition is going to depend on how deep the piece is, whether it’s in mud or not, because sometimes when something is completely covered in mud, the mud will protect it. If it’s been exposed in the river there’s a chance of some degrading of the material. With iron, even in fresh water, iron holds up pretty well. We have six pieces in our collection that were underwater for a hundred years but after they’ve been preserved and treated properly you wouldn’t know they had been underwater for a hundred years. It holds up remarkably well.”

So iron apparently holds up pretty well under the assault of nature. Getting additional CSS Neuse artifacts from the Neuse River will depend on whether bad luck surrounding efforts to start the search will break its hold. Matthew Young is the site manager for the CSS Neuse & Governor Richard Caswell Memorial in Kinston. I’m George Olsen.

George Olsen is a 1977 Havelock High School graduate. He received his B.A. in Broadcast Journalism from the University of South Carolina in 1982 where he got his first taste of non-commercial radio working for their student station WUSC. After graduation he worked about five years in commercial radio before coming to work at Public Radio East where he has remained since outside of a nearly 3-year stint as jazz and operations coordinator at WUAL in Tuscaloosa, Alabama in the early 1990s. On his return to eastern North Carolina he hosted classical music for Public Radio East before moving into the Morning Edition host position and now can be heard on All Things Considered. He also hosts and produces The Sound, five hours of Americana, Roots Rock and Contemporary Folk weekday evenings on PRE Public Radio East News & Ideas, and is a news and feature producer for Public Radio East.