SAVANNAH, Ga. — A warehouse along the Savannah River harbors historical treasures proven to have been lost for more than 240 years — a cache of 19 guns that researchers believe may have come from British ships that sailed the seas during the American Revolution riverbed were sunk.
The mud and rust-encrusted cannons were discovered by accident. A dredger scooping sediment out of the river bed as part of a $973 million deepening of Savannah’s busy shipping channel last year emerged with one of the guns mounted in its metal jaws. The crew soon dug up two more.
Archaeologists suspected they might have been relics from a sunken Confederate gunship that had been unearthed in the same area a few years earlier, said Andrea Farmer, an Army Corps of Engineers archaeologist. However, US Navy experts determined that they did not match known guns used in the Civil War. Further investigation suggests they are probably nearly a century older, sinking in the run-up to the bloody Revolutionary War Siege of Savannah in 1779.
In a little over a year, 19 guns were hoisted from the same river area a few miles downriver from Savannah, where Georgia was founded in 1733, the last of Britain’s 13 American colonies.
“You’re in remarkably good shape,” Farmer said. “Many were buried in mud and covered by silt and rubble, which somehow protected them.”
Officials hope to preserve and display the guns
Now US, UK and Georgia state officials are working together on an agreement to preserve the newly found guns before they are put on display. Britain’s Royal Navy Commodore Philip Nash, a military attaché based in Washington, toured the artifacts immersed in metal tubs of water during a visit Thursday.
“Some of these pieces are in amazing condition and I’m sure they could tell some stories,” Nash said.
The cannons are kept in the water to prevent further deterioration until experts can carefully clean them. Meanwhile, researchers are looking for more definitive evidence linking the cannons to British ships from the American Revolution.
Farmer said the researchers are very confident in the connection. Savannah had been under British occupation for about a year in the fall of 1779 when colonists planned an attack to retake the city with the help of French and Haitian allies.
Researchers are still looking for clues as to the origins of the weapons
When French ships carrying troops were sighted off the coast of Georgia, the British rushed to sink at least six ships in the Savannah River downstream of the city to blockade the French ships. The land battle that followed was one of the bloodiest of the war. British forces killed nearly 300 colonial fighters and their allies and wounded hundreds more.
Farmer said researchers suspect the cannons found in the river came from the British ship HMS Savannah and a second ship, HMS Venus, may have been sunk at the same time. The longer guns appear to be consistent with guns made in France in the mid-1700s, she said. Researchers are looking at ship logs and manifests in hopes of confirming the armament aboard these ships.
It’s also possible that the cannons themselves and other artefacts found at the site – pieces of anchor and part of a ship’s bell – may have been marked after cleaning or have other clues as to which ship they belonged to. The timber from these ships, Farmer said, long ago decayed or was destroyed by previous dredging projects over a number of decades.
The question of who owns the artifacts gets a little murky. They were found in Georgia state waters during a dredging project led by the Army Corps, a US government agency. The British government could make a claim of ownership if there is strong evidence that the artifacts came from British ships.
Farmer said all of these parties are working toward an agreement to preserve the cannons and eventually display them in the Savannah History Museum, which includes the battlefield that saw the bloodiest fighting during the 1779 siege.
“Everyone wants to keep the artifacts in Savannah,” Farmer said, “because that makes the most sense.”