How the Savannah River Became a Graveyard for American Revolutionary War Cannons

In January 2022, archaeologists recovered 12 guns it is believed to be from more than one American Revolutionary War shipwreck in the Savannah River. That makes a total of 15 cannons joining artifacts such as anchors and ordnance recently discovered in city waters at a crucial time in Georgia’s ancient history.

The mystery of the artillery cemetery began to unfold at the end of February 2021, when a dredge from a multi-agency port expansion project unearthed three iron cannons and fragments of anchors in an area in front of Old Fort Jackson, known as “Five-fathom hole,with a view of downtown Savannah.

A team from the Savannah District of the US Army Corps of Engineers, along with archaeologists from the Commonwealth Heritage Group and local divers, began the process of recovering the guns from the river and attempting to identify their origins.

This team had experience working together on many projects, including the recovery of the Civil War-era battleship CSS Georgia in the summer of 2015. More recently, they helped reveal new details about how Civil War Era Nativity Scenes – rows of wooden crates filled with stones or bricks sunk by the Confederate defenders – prevented Union naval forces from attacking the city.

The US Army Corps of Engineers raised 15 cannons from the Savannah River believed to date from the American Revolution. Photo courtesy of US Army Corps of Engineers/Flickr.

For the latest discovery, the team consulted experts from Britain’s Royal Navy, leading them to suspect that the guns were from HMS Rose, a famous British warship intentionally sunk in the Savannah River in 1779. The Rose was scuttled as part of the attempt to prevent French ships from coming to the aid of the Americans during the Siege of Savannah. The British hoped to keep Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia under British control.

However, research recently ruled out the Rose, which historical records show sank farther up the river without any weapons on board.

Instead, British records indicate that the weapons came from two or more ships that had carried British troops. These ships were also deliberately sunk as a blockade tactic after a large French fleet approached.

“The French had blockaded the port of Savannah, preparing to attack,” said archaeologist Stephen James, according to a Savannah Corps YouTube Video. “They scuttled these troop transports to keep the French out and prevent the takeover of the town.”

Archaeologists from the Commonwealth Heritage Group have created a detailed map of the artifacts at the bottom of the river using sonar and hands-on measurements by trained divers. Local salvage divers were then called in to help resurface the guns. In the middle of the busy channel, dives could only take place at high or low tide and had to stop if cargo ships passed through the area.

The turbidity of the water also made the work difficult.

“You have zero [visibility], the current tears you apart, you hang on half the time trying to make your way there,” recalls rescue diver Richard Steele. “It was a race against time every time you entered the water.”

The divers wrapped strong straps around the guns, then used inflatable lifting bags to lift the guns from the thick mud. A large crane hoisted the recovered guns out of the water and into metal troughs. Trucks brought them to the Corps of Engineers depot for examination.

“The river also yielded other smaller but equally important artifacts,” said Michael Jordan, the video’s producer, “including several pieces of barbell, a type of ammunition that closely resembles a modern barbell.”

Ammunition, when fired, spins in the air and is often effective against other warships as there is a significant increase in the chance of hitting the ship’s mast.

“We’re going to identify a few that would be great candidates for preservation,” said Andrea Farmer, a Savannah District archaeologist working on the project. “We’re hoping they’ll be on display locally in Savannah so people can see them. We’re just interested in hearing more about the story.

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