Ruins could offer clues about life on a Civil War blockade runner

State archaeologists think they have identified the remains of the shipwreck they located in the murky waters off Oak Island last month as the Civil War blockade runner Agnes E. Fry, and they say the ruins could provide new information about the lives of 19th-century seamen.

“I’m 99 percent positive that it is the Agnes E. Fry,” said Billy Ray Morris, North Carolina’s deputy state archaeologist in charge of underwater operations. “I’ve been doing this 40 years, and in only two cases have I been absolutely, no-questions-asked positive, because we found things with ships’ names on them. This is as close as I can get without actually having something that says, ‘Agnes E. Fry.’

“It’s cool beyond words.”

The area around the mouth of the Cape Fear River is littered with Civil War-era vessels that ran aground or were destroyed as the Union Navy tried to prevent goods from being delivered to Wilmington, which by 1862 was the closest active seaport to the Eastern theater battlefront. According to state historians, after Charleston, S.C., Wilmington was the most heavily fortified city on the Atlantic seaboard, protected by Fort Fisher, south of the city, and by a series of smaller forts and batteries in and around the city and along the Cape Fear River.

By 1865, Wilmington was the last supply route open to Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, which relied on the fast ships that slipped silently past Naval vessels patrolling offshore. From ports in Cuba, Bermuda and the Bahamas, blockade runners brought munitions and hardware for Confederate military use and more profitable goods such as cotton, brandy, salt and molasses that civilians craved.

The Agnes E. Fry had been built for just such mercenary work. Constructed by Caird & Co. in Scotland, it was big – 237 feet long and 25 feet across – with a 13-foot hold. With an iron hull, it weighed 559 tons but was fast; it had a steam engine and twin paddlewheels, one on each side.

Confederate Navy Lt. Joseph Fry picked it up at the dock when it was launched in the spring of 1864. The vessel was named after his wife, his first cousin on his mother’s side.

In October, Fry wrote his wife saying he had made four unsuccessful attempts to run the blockade at Wilmington before retreating with the ship to Bermuda.

He went back in November – twice – making successful runs each time, delivering provisions and making enough money on the sale of the cargo for the owners to pay for the ship, according to a letter he wrote in early December.

On the night of Dec. 27, 1864, three days after the first Union assault on Fort Fisher, Fry made another run for the port at Wilmington and was chased by a Union ship. The Fry’s pilot later reported that he saw another ship coming toward him and, mistaking it for another enemy vessel, steered closer to shore.

The Agnes E. Fry ran aground, and though the crew made it off the ship – the pursuer not daring to venture any closer to Confederate guns – they likely left most everything behind. The next morning, according to records, the Union fired on the stranded Agnes Fry.

Soon after, the Union launched another assault on the fort in the effort to finally take Wilmington, so Nathan Henry, an assistant state archaeologist who works with Morris, believes, “The garrison had other things to deal with other than salvaging that boat.”

Other salvages

Except for looters who may have climbed aboard during the ensuing years, the ship is known to have been salvaged only twice. The first was by a private company in 1888, 23 years after the grounding, to remove engine parts and the paddlewheel shaft. In 1909, to reduce the navigational hazard the ruined ship presented, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers sent out two heavy steam tugs with a cable strung between them, and they sheared the hull horizontally about 10 feet from the bottom like they were slicing a hunk of cheese.

“You can see the broken hull pieces all over the bottom,” said Morris, who dived on the wreck on March 22.

Historians say at least 31 steam- and 22 sail-powered blockade runners were lost in the Cape Fear River area during the Civil War, all but one of them stranded along the beach or on inlet shoals. The state has documented 27 of them, most of which are part of a shipwreck historic district first listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985.

While archaeologists knew the Agnes E. Fry was out there, they never had the money or time to do the costly work of documenting the ship until the state received a grant several years ago from the National Park Service’s American Battlefield Protection Program.

Recently, the state archeology office has been using the grant to survey the condition of the known wrecks and to try to document additional ones.

That’s what Morris and his colleague, Gordon Watts, were doing when they went out with a magnetometer, in search of large metal deposits, in the area where records indicated one of three blockade runners might be lying on the bottom: the Agnes E. Fry, the Spunkie or the Georgianna McCaw, which went down close to one another.

“We found it with one pass” on Feb. 27, said Morris: a 225-foot metal signature. Sonar later confirmed the scale of the find, which was much too large to be either the Spunkie or the McCaw, and the shape, which fit the description of the Fry, years newer and more modern than the other two.

Morris said his dive on the nearly intact wreck on March 22, with 18-inch visibility, excellent for these waters, made him even more sure it’s the Fry.

“Now that I’ve had my hands on the boiler, I know the boiler design is way too late for either of those other two wrecks. It’s radically different from what they had.”

More to learn

Any effort to remove artifacts from the wreckage is a long way off, Morris said, and would only be done if there is something new to be learned. He thinks there may be.

For one thing, historians don’t know exactly what the Fry was hauling when it made its daring run toward the port, and Morris thinks there may still be remains or indications of what that was. More importantly, he said, since the crew probably left with only what they were wearing, traces of their private possessions might be in the wreckage.

“I’ve got the journal of the chief engineer, and some information from the captain,” Morris said. “But there is nothing from the coal-heaver on that boat because he probably couldn’t read or write. If we could find some personal gear from the crewmen, that adds a voice to the people who didn’t leave a written record.”

Ultimately, Morris would like to develop a dive park around some of the wrecks of the Cape Fear, which could include the Agnes E. Fry. He hopes to start with the Condor, another iron-hulled side-wheel blockade runner that lies in 15 feet of water off Fort Fisher at Kure Beach, her paddle wheels and shaft still connected. She also was built and sunk in 1864.

The state historic site at Fort Fisher has a scale model of the Condor and tells its story. The state aquarium nearby has a replica of the ship’s engine space built into one of its exhibits. At the wreck, the state could install mooring bouys so dive ships could tie up, and it could mount underwater maps so divers know where they are and what they’re seeing.

“So you can see a model of it, you can go and see a complete interpretation of it, and then you could go out and dive on it,” Morris said. “I think that would be neat for people visiting this area.”

Morris said he has begun talks with the U.S. Coast Guard to begin work on the project.

“This is our shared maritime heritage,” he said. “It belongs to the people of North Carolina. I want them to see it.”

Martha Quillin: 919-829-8989, @MarthaQuillin