Aftermath of Hurricane Matthew: Forts survive storm surge; unearthed ordnance

Like many, I have monitored the news from the southeast as Hurricane Matthew over the last few days.  Friends and relatives living in and around the storm’s path all report they are fine and recovering.  The storm left behind a trail of damage and destruction, with over 300 reported deaths in Haiti alone and ten reported in the U.S.

But it could have been much worse.  The eye passed some 20 to 25 miles offshore of Tybee Island.  Later the center of the storm passed thirty miles eastward of Charleston before making landfall further up the coast near Cape Romain, not far from where Hurricane Hugo made landfall in 1989.  While Hugo was rated at category 4 when making landfall, Matthew was falling from category 2 down to 1 before reaching the coast.  Still the track covered a large section of coast from Florida to North Carolina.  As such, we see a lot of familiar place-names in news reports.

From Savannah, footage shows flooding at Fort Pulaski.  At first this appears dramatic… particularly from the view of the reporter (… who’s not yet visited the fort):


Yes, the fort is completely isolated, with a significant portion of Cockspur Island under water.  As of this writing, there are no on-site reports.  So we don’t have a full assessment.  But from this view, we can see the interior of the fort was not flooded.  A tree in the interior has fallen and the demilune is wet, but the casemates appear dry.  Relatively that is.  The video didn’t give a close view of the lighthouse further downriver.  Hopefully within a few days the water will drain off… and hopefully any damage is minor.  And this is largely due to the careful placement and construction of the fort. General Joseph Mansfield deserves much credit for the fort’s survival… 170 years after the fact!

Further up the coast, Forts Sumter and Moultrie were also within the storm’s path.  The forts closed and prepared to weather the storm:

No work as of this writing about the status of those forts.  So we are in “wait and see” mode. The storm surge crested to 9.29 feet at Fort Sumter at it’s peak.

However, Fort Sumter is in the news feeds due to a post-storm finding down the coast at Folly Island.  Erosion from the storm unearthed a pile of what appear to be shells:


Later reports added, “Authorities announced Sunday night that a number of the cannonballs were detonated by the Air Force and a small amount of them would be transported to the Naval Base.”

I don’t want to “Monday morning quarterback” here.  As I’ve said in the past, handling explosive ordnance is something we must… MUST … allow the experts to manage.  Some will offer, from a safe distance, these were fully inert.  Maybe so.  Maybe not.  “We” were not there, and don’t know all the details.  The individuals on the scene made a risk assessment and deemed action necessary.  We should accept their decision as the call to make.  All I would offer is that EOD teams, such as those called upon to respond at Folly Island, should have access to as much information on Civil War ordnance as possible to further aid their decisions.  Far better to incorporate what is known about the subject into their (EOD) policies and procedures than to openly criticize them for being cautious.  This hurricane killed at least ten here in the US.  And over 600,000 died in the Civil War.  We should not rush to add more to either grim tallies.

The value of this find was not with the actual shells themselves, but rather the context of the location. This site appears to be on the northern end of Folly Beach. Several Federal batteries stood in that area, guarding Lighthouse Inlet (and in July 1863, were used to support landings on Morris Island).  Archaeological surveys of the area have documented well some of the battery locations (as the gentleman in the video notes, the location was known by locals as a place where fortifications stood).  Hopefully this find will add to that knowledge.  Given the location, on eroded beach, it appears sufficient effort was made to document that context.  Perhaps this will spur further archaeological examinations in the area.

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