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Confederate Blockade-Runner Shipwreck Discovered Off North Carolina

Civil War Shipwreck
An iron-hulled steamer dating to the American Civil War was discovered in the Atlantic Ocean off the North Carolina coast. (Image credit: Georgiana Fry)

A shipwreck dating to the American Civil War — likely that of a Confederate blockade-runner — was discovered off the Atlantic coast of North Carolina, according to the North Carolina Office of State Archaeology.

Using sonar, researchers and archaeologists discovered the sunken iron-hulled steamer near Oak Island, located on the southern coast of the state, on Feb. 27. The ship's remains are believed to be one of three blockade-runners that, despite the Union blockade, transported goods in and out of the Port of Wilmington during the Civil War (1861-1865), according to a statement from the state.

During the war, blockade-runners brought supplies into the South and ferried away exports, such as cotton, to places that would trade with the Confederacy. [Busted: 6 Civil War Myths]

"A new [blockade]-runner is a really big deal," Billy Ray Morris, deputy state maritime archaeologist and director of the North Carolina Office of State Archaeology's Underwater Archaeology Branch, said in a statement. "The state of preservation on this wreck is among the best we've ever had."

Archaeologists discovered the shipwreck 27 miles (44 kilometers) downstream from Wilmington near Fort Caswell, at the mouth of Cape Fear River — making it the first Civil War shipwreck uncovered in the region in decades, Morris said.

At least three blockade-runners — the Agnes E. Fry, Spunkie and Georgianna McCaw — are known to be shipwrecked in the area, and the archaeologists said they would look for clues that will help them identify whether this vessel is one of them. So far, scientists aboard a research boat dubbed Atlantic Surveyor have used sonar to record the complete hull of the vessel, and students at the East Carolina University Maritime Studies Program will help them gather more information, weather permitting.

The finding may provide information about the Civil War history of the area. Over the past two years, historians have pored over maps, artifacts and records to learn more about the maritime operations of the Fort Fisher campaign, a naval siege that took place when the Union attempted to capture the fortifications protecting Wilmington in December 1864. [Disasters at Sea: 6 Deadliest Shipwrecks]

The fortifications protected both entrances to the Cape Fear River, both of which acted as lifelines for the Confederacy. But Fort Fisher fell in January 1865 to Union forces, the researchers said.

Funds from the National Park Service and the American Battlefield Protection Program will help pay for the research.

The North Carolina coast is no stranger to shipwrecks: Researchers found a shipwreck dating to the American Revolutionary War in 2015, and two vessels from World War II (a merchant freighter named Bluefields and German U-boat U-576) in 2014.

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Laura Geggel
As an associate editor for Live Science, Laura Geggel covers general science, including the environment, archaeology and amazing animals. She has written for The New York Times, Scholastic, Popular Science and Spectrum, a site covering autism research. Laura grew up in Seattle and studied English literature and psychology at Washington University in St. Louis before completing her graduate degree in science writing at NYU. When not writing, you'll find Laura playing Ultimate Frisbee.