In a year-long cleanup effort targeting toxic coal tar along the banks of South Carolina’s Congaree River, archaeologists have unearthed a treasure trove of Civil War relics.
The artifacts, including bullets, cannonballs, and swords, were strategically dumped by Union troops in February 1865, marking the culmination of General William Tecumseh Sherman’s ruthless march through the South.
The extensive cleanup, initiated by Dominion Energy at a cost of $20 million, began in spring 2022 and concluded in October 2023. The project aimed to address the environmental impact of coal tar dumped into the river between 1906 and the mid-1950s by a manufactured gas plant. However, the recovery effort also provided an opportunity to explore the submerged remnants of the Civil War era.
“It’s pretty powerful when that history that you read about, you hear about, suddenly comes into reality, and you can hold it in your hand,” said Sean Norris, archaeological program manager at TRC, an environmental consulting firm. The artifacts, corroded by decades in the river, include cannonballs, artillery shells, musket rounds, and a sword blade, offering a tangible connection to the events of 1865.
The historical backdrop of these artifacts traces back to the chaotic aftermath of Sherman’s capture of Columbia, the state’s capital and a crucial railroad city. As Confederate forces retreated, Union troops, in a state of disarray and some intoxicated, ransacked the city. Fires engulfed more than two-thirds of Columbia, prompting the Union army to dispose of captured Confederate munitions, including over a million ball cartridges, gunpowder, sabres, bayonets, and backpacks, into the Congaree River.
While Dominion Energy has been advocating for the recovery and preservation of these artifacts for over a decade, the presence of live Civil War unexploded ordnance added complexity to the cleanup. As crews employed armor-plated excavators as a precaution against potential explosives, the recovery effort successfully retrieved various relics associated with Sherman’s destruction of Columbia.
The artifacts, though corroded, provide valuable information about the extent of the Sherman Dump Site in the Congaree River. James Spirek, South Carolina state underwater archaeologist, highlighted the importance of the discoveries, stating that they “add a little more detail to the events surrounding the Union troops’ disposal of the war material in the river.”
In addition to Civil War items, the cleanup unearthed Native American arrowheads and more modern debris, such as car parts and appliances. The artifacts are expected to be displayed at the South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum in Columbia once they undergo conservation processes and are thoroughly examined.
“All those things are lost on us today. They seem like just stories from the past. 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,” South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster told CBS News.