The Recovery of Gun Tubes in 2015 and the Very Short Life of the CSS Pee Dee
by Gordon Thorsby
Three naval gun tubes of were recovered from the Pee Dee River after an extensive effort in 2015. Two Brooke Guns and a Dahlgren tube was hauled out of heavy mud after their discovery on Sept 29 and were immediately reported by news organizations across the region.
The guns, each weighing over 14,000 pounds, were determined to be from the doomed Confederate Cruiser CSS Pee Dee and are now on display at the Florence County Veterans Center in Florence, SC. They were buried in the mud for over 160 years when the gunboat was scuttled in 1865.
What was the CSS Pee Dee’s story?
The Mars Bluff Navy Yard near Florence, SC began construction of a Macon class, schooner rigged, screw sloop gunboat that was laid down in 1862. At its start, it was to be named for the river for which she would be eventually launched C.S.S Pee Dee.
Length 170 Feet
Beam 26 Feet
Draft 9 Feet
Crewed by 90 sailors and officers.
The Confederacy was running short on resources as the conflict wore on so the technology of the craft was compromised. The designer was Acting Naval Constructor John L. Porter, CSN. The engines came from two sources: one from the Naval Iron Works in Richmond and the other possibly originating from Great Britain.
Upon completion, it is believed to have been launched in November 1864 or January 1865 with LT. Oscar F. Johnston commanding. She made nine knots at maximum speed with the twin propellers and she was armed with one 7" Brooke rifle, one 6.4" Brooke rifle, and one captured 9" Dahlgren smoothbore. More on the Dahlgren shortly.
She was either for patrolling the Pee Dee protecting rail lines and bridges, or seagoing duty. Both theories have been offered. Its draft was deep for rivers but the 232-mile Pee Dee River (named after the Pee Dee Indians) was much deeper in the mid 1800’s than present and more navigable. The patrol could go from Georgetown in the south to Cheraw (pronounced She-RAW) in the north.
In January, it began moving freight and patrolling the river as Union General William T. Sherman approached South Carolina. She received orders to move to the coast and the Atlantic Ocean but the river had become too low to pass the sandbar. Her orders changed to move upriver to support the withdrawal of Gen. William J. Hardee’s small army from at Cheraw as Sherman made for Cheraw. Hardee burned the bridge at Cheraw to slow the Federal movement but Union troops still occupied Cheraw after a small fight with Hardee's rear delay. Charleston and the C.S.S. Pee Dee was trapped.
The End of C.S.S. Pee Dee
On 18 March, CSS Pee Dee turned back downriver. The Pee Dee was near the Marion Courthouse Naval Yard on the way back to Mar’s Bluff when decisions were made to scuttle the gunboat. The officers fired one of the three guns into the swamp, guns, pushed into the river, dismantled other portions of the gunboat, set her on fire, and called to abandon ship. The Pee Dee, now ablaze continued a slow drift with the current until it settled into the mud two miles downstream.
The remains of the fugitive gunboat was discovered in 1925 buried in the mud during a period of low-water but the guns remained lost, that is until 2015. It was through scientific measures, two guns were discovered, the Dahlgren and the smaller Brooke gun. The larger Brooke avoided discovery until a nearby landowner sighted it further downstream muzzle facing upstream, and buried in deep silt deposits where the gun must have been jettisoned.
How the Dahlgren gun came into possession for the Pee Dee’s use is quite interesting. The recovered gun had unique markings The gun it was theorized by Dr. Larry Babits is “that the gun was captured from one of three Union gunboats due to the manufacture of the Dahlgren guns in mid-1862. The most likely origin was that of the USS Southfield. The USS Southfield had earlier been disabled in December, 1862, and the captain had recorded its two Dahlgren guns’ markings. The Southfield was repaired and put back into service. Per Dr. Babit’s research, “If the Pee Dee Dahlgren gun is from the Southfield, then it must be one of these two that arrived just in time from the engagement with the CSS Albemarle that destroyed the Southfield in the morning of 18 April, 1864.
Guns of the Pee Dee - The Cannon Recovery" by Ted L. Gragg
Flat River Rock Publishing Division, Myrtle Beach, South Carolina
Modern rendering of CSS Pee Dee. (Drawing by) 17 Legacy, Vol. 17, No. 1,
Maritime Research Division, “Update on Mars Bluff Navy Yard / CSS Pee Dee Cannons”, Investigations By James D. Spirek, 2013 by The South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology