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Experts find shipwreck evidence in river

Archaeologists say they found strong evidence Thursday they've located the wreckage of a Civil War gunboat buried under more than 10 feet of mud in the Vernon River south of Savannah.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Captured by Confederate sailors in a bloody midnight sneak attack in 1864, the gunboat Water Witch became one of the few Civil War ships to sail under the flags of both the Confederate and Union navies. Archaeologists say they found strong evidence Thursday they've located the Water Witch's wreckage buried under more than 10 feet of mud in the Vernon River south of Savannah.

Divers pushed a 20-foot metal rod through the river mud Thursday and tapped solid wood and metal underneath. It was the same location where an 1865 survey map showed Confederate sailors burned the ship to prevent Union Gen. William T. Sherman's army from recapturing it.

"In all likelihood, it is the Water Witch," said Gordon Watts, an underwater archaeologist hired by the state of Georgia. "We'd have to absolutely dig something up to say for sure."

If Watts is correct, the Water Witch would be just the third Civil War shipwreck — along with the ironclad CSS Georgia and the blockade runner CSS Nashville — to be found out of dozens known to have been sunk in Georgia waters, said Dave Crass, Georgia's state archaeologist.

"There are lots more that are out there and we know where the are, but it's cost prohibitive" to go after them, Crass said.

Archaeologists got lucky with the Water Witch. The state Department of Transportation had to survey a part of the Vernon River it plans to bridge with a parkway extension. The agency agreed to go ahead and check a spot just two miles away where the Water Witch was believed to have burned.

Using a magnetometer, a giant metal detector, surveyors detected large iron objects scattered beneath the river's surface in an area 200 feet long. An 1865 map marked the same spot as the Water Witch's grave.

Crass said the state will consult with the federal government, which technically owns the wreckage, to see if they support funding an expedition to verify whether the diver found the Water Witch.

The 160-foot, wooden-hulled Water Witch was built by the U.S. Navy in 1851 as a sort of hybrid of old and new seafaring technologies. Though outfitted with a steam engine and side-mounted paddle wheels, the ship also had 90-foot masts for sailing.

During the Civil War, the Water Witch patrolled blockades off the coasts of Alabama, Florida, South Carolina, but mostly in the waters of Ossabaw Sound between Ossabaw Island and the Georgia mainland 15 miles south of Savannah.

That's where Confederate Navy Lt. Thomas Pelot got assigned to lead a raid to capture the ship in the early morning darkness on June 3, 1864.

Pelot led a group of about 120 men who used small boats to slip alongside the Water Witch undetected. Their numbers gave them a healthy advantage over the ship's crew of 65 sailors.

Taken by surprise, the Union sailors still put up a fight, engaging the Confederates in close quarters combat with sabers and revolvers. Luther Billings, the assistant paymaster aboard the Water Witch, later estimated 40 men were killed or wounded in the raid.

The dead included Pelot, who led the assault, and Dallas Moses, a slave who was also paid a $100 monthly salary as a Confederate river pilot.

Moses piloted the lead boat in the sneak attack, and was supposed to steer the captured Water Witch back to Savannah — under the flag of the Confederate Navy.

Though numerous ships were captured by both sides in the Civil War, few actually served on both sides during the war, said Bruce Smith, executive director of the National Civil War Naval Museum in Columbus.

"It was fairly uncommon," Smith said. "It did happen a number of times, less than a handful."

Because Moses was killed before he could pilot the captured Water Witch, the ship never made it back to Savannah. Confederate sailors dared not take their prize back to sea, where Union battleships watched for it, and the inland waterways to the city were too shallow.

The Water Witch remained in the waters near Ossabaw Sound for about six months until December, when Sherman's Union troops closed in on Savannah. Fearing the Union would reclaim the ship, Confederate sailors burned it in the water.

Smith said written orders from the period show that sailors stripped the Water Witch of its guns, ammunition and most of its supplies before burning it. But he said any artifacts that could be recovered would be valuable.

"If it was just doorknobs, that would be fantastic as far as I'm concerned, if it was the real deal," Smith said.