A wooden ship from the mid-1800s, possibly a Civil War blockade runner, recently has been discovered along the beach at Cumberland Island — a previously unreported find that locals, archaeologists and parks officials believe could be a major historical discovery.
The unknown vessel lay in the shallow waters of Cumberland, a barrier island off Georgia’s southeastern coast. Officials surmise a December storm shifted enough sand to make visible the ship’s bones — its wooden gunnel, or midsection, lying exposed like the ribs of a dead cow.
Georgia’s waters are littered with shipwrecked vessels. Most have long been identified, studied, plundered or preserved. “The Cumberland shipwreck,” as this vessel is now known, is rare in that nobody can say what type of ship she is, where she came from, what she carried or how she went down.
The mystery ship is potentially one of Georgia’s most significant maritime finds in years.
“It’s pretty uncommon,” Michael Seibert, an archaeologist with the National Park Service, told The Atlanta Journal Constitution in an exclusive interview.
“It’s not uncommon for a known shipwreck to be uncovered,” said Seibert, who investigated the wreck this week. “That happens all the time in Florida and Mississippi, especially with strong storms coming through. But this one has never been recorded. This makes it the first time anybody living has seen it.”
Seibert estimated the ship had lain untouched and covered by sand for at least 50 years. Sheltered from the sun and the wind, the vessel’s remains — one timber measures 80 feet in length, suggesting the ship was at least 100 feet long — are in relatively fine condition.
Locals living at least part time on Cumberland Island, the National Seashore Park once owned largely by the wealthy Carnegie family, discovered the wooden plankings and trunnels (“tree nails”) around Christmas. They alerted Fred Boyles, the National Park Service superintendent in charge of Cumberland.
Boyles called in NPS archaeologists from Tallahassee, Fla. Seibert and colleague Eric Bezemek scoured the shipwreck site from Tuesday to Thursday, mapping the ship’s bones, taking pictures and wood samples. With a backhoe, they re-covered the ship in sand to protect it from the elements and treasure hunters.
The hull wasn’t found. But the ship’s midsection, held together with wood nails and later repaired with metal spikes and fasteners, offered a trove of tantalizing clues. Seibert said the design and material suggest a ship built in the mid-1800s.
“We found no artifacts. It was pretty sterile,” Seibert said. “But it is a ship of considerable size.”
Locals first considered the vessel a slave ship, but park service officials dismissed that theory. More likely it’s a cargo ship, they say, maybe a blockade runner used by Confederate supporters during the Civil War to sneak guns, food and soldiers past Union forces.
“There was an awful lot of Civil War military traffic along the coast (with) many smaller vessels that were all about stealth and speed,” said Chris McCabe, the deputy archaeologist for the state of Georgia. “We can’t say definitively that it’s a blockade runner, and we may never be able to say definitively, but it’s an absolute possibility.”
McCabe soon will receive Seibert’s report, maps and photos in an attempt to unravel the mystery. He’ll pore over 19th century construction records, ship logs, insurance records and historical archives in Savannah, Atlanta, Washington or possibly London.
Wood samples will be carbon-dated to determine the vessel’s age and pinpoint, perhaps, where the trees to build her came from. Metal fasteners offer additional chronological clues. Old newsclips and journals will be perused for tales of sunken ships.
“It’s like detective work,” said McCabe, who works out of the state’s underwater archaeological field station in Savannah. “You piece together all the little pieces from the scene. It’s like CSI.”
No state official would divulge the shipwreck’s location. Boyles officially will announce the ship’s uncovering Tuesday.
He couldn’t say whether the park service will ever disinter her remains. A blanket of sand provides the best protection for a long lost ship. But the buzz surrounding the Cumberland shipwreck will surely grow.
“It will be cool, another little piece of history,” said Justin Moore, who manages a dive shop in St. Marys, the town nearest Cumberland. “Anytime somebody finds a new wreck it does wonderful things for this area. We may just be able to find out a little bit more about the way people lived back then and why there were here.”
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.