Monday, July 1, 2013

Exploring the Civil War’s underwater history

His father’s passion for archaeology and history spurred Lee Spence’s interest in shipwrecks.

“When I was a child my father was in military intelligence. We travelled all over the world and he would point out historic sites. He bought me books. The first one I remember was Robinson Crusoe. I was probably nine years old and that got me hooked, as if I wasn’t hooked enough already

His father had already taught him to put his face in the water, cup his hands above his eyes and blow a bubble into them, so he could see what was on the bottom. Eventually he got a real mask and started finding small treasures. At age 12 he built his first self-contained dive gear. “It almost drowned me. It’s not something I would recommend,” he says of his experiment in build-your-own scuba equipment.

Spence found his first shipwreck before he saw a real set of scuba gear and had been discovering wrecks for four years before he became a certified diver in 1963.

While Spence’s explorations also included ancient ruins, subterranean caves, castles and palaces, it was shipwrecks – particularly Civil War ships sunk off the South Carolina coast – that really intrigued him.

He is probably best known for his discovery in 1970 of the H.L. Hunley, which during the Civil War became the first submarine in history to sink a battleship. “It could go under another vessel and stay down for over an hour.”

But among the scores of named ships and hundreds of unidentified wrecks he has discovered, his favourite is the SS Georgiana, a Civil War blockade runner that was sunk off the Atlantic coast of South Carolina. He started researching it in France because he knew his family would be moving back to Charleston, South Carolina.

“It was the one I got really fascinated with and it taught me more about research than anything else . . . all the things necessary to track information.”

This included researching documents in government libraries, and touching base with sources such as Lloyds of London, various museums, government officials in England and the U.S. and even with the police department in Liverpool because detectives there had investigated the SS Georgiana to determine if it was a war vessel or not.

Newspapers described her as a privateer and reported that the SS Georgiana was faster and stronger than any of the other Confederate cruisers. Still, the ship was sunk on its maiden voyage on March 19, 1863. It was carrying a cargo valued at one million dollars, a fortune by the standards of 150 years ago. The cargo included munitions, medicines and merchandise. The supplies were paid for with cotton and gold from the South.

Federal ships were anchored off the Confederate coast to blockade the ports and intercept and capture vessels bringing supplies to the Confederate states from England and Europe. Spence says the crew of the USS America spotted the SS Georgiana and sent up flares to alert the rest of the fleet. They converged on her a mile off shore near Charleston.

“They came alongside her and, despite her having an iron hull, the rounds were passing through one side of her and out the other. At one point the enemy ships were so close the Georgiana’s crew could hear the orders to fire,” says Spence. “She almost got away but an exploding cannon ball that went off under her stern damaged her propeller.”

No one died on the SS Georgiana because the captain ran her aground close to shore.

The SS Georgiana was officially owned by Charleston entrepreneur George Trenholm, who was fiercely loyal to the South and had decided to dabble in privateering. Privateers were privately owned vessels sanctioned by their government to enforce their laws and capture enemy commerce. Spence says before the Civil War the U.S. was one of the few major countries that did not outlaw privateering. “It had used privateers to successfully fight the British in two wars and had used them against the French and even against the Algerian pirates.”

In investigating the history of the ship, Spence came to believe that Trenholm’s life was the basis of Rhett Butler’s character in Margaret Mitchell’s famed novel, Gone with the Wind. That was later confirmed by several of Mitchell’s relatives. The Charleston shipping magnate had made a fortune by running blockades, and many of the unique events described in her book came directly out of Trenholm’s life.

Despite his extensive work underwater exploring shipwrecks, E. Lee Spence has quite a portfolio of work on dry land. He has a doctorate in marine history and has written about 30 books, one of which is Shipwrecks, Pirates and Privateers: Sunken Treasures of the Upper South Carolina Coast, 1521-1865. His website is

Kathy Dowsett

Update July 1, 2013

E. Lee Spence has just been credited with the discovery of the SS United States, which was built during the American Civil War. Spence, along with Brandon Fulwider and Mike Stearns, were the first to dive to the 19th-century steamer found in 16 feet of water off the South Carolina coast. The ship disappeared in 1881 and is part of a cluster of vessels that were lost on Cape Romain’s outer shoal.

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