A year-long cleanup project in South Carolina targeting toxic coal tar on the banks of the Congaree River has unearthed a treasure trove of Civil War artifacts. Among the debris pulled from the river were bullets, cannonballs, and rusty swords. The discovery wasn’t surprising to Sean Norris, an archaeological program manager at environmental consulting firm TRC, as previous underwater investigations had indicated the presence of various types of cannonballs and musket rounds. Historical records even listed thousands of additional items captured from Confederate troops. The artifacts were deposited in the river in February 1865 when Columbia, the state’s capital, was occupied by the Union Army under the command of General William Tecumseh Sherman. During the occupation, Confederate soldiers and townspeople plundered businesses and warehouses, causing chaos. The Union army then dumped captured Confederate munitions into the Congaree River, including over a million ball cartridges, gunpowder, sabres, bayonets, backpacks, and tents. The cleanup project, which began in spring 2022 and concluded in October, also uncovered relics associated with Sherman’s destruction of Columbia. The artifacts recovered included bullets, cannonballs, and swords, some of which were displayed at a press conference. One unexploded ordnance was also discovered and handled by munitions experts. The Congaree River has a history of being a dumping ground, with a manufactured gas plant dumping toxic coal tar into the river from 1906 to the mid-1950s. Dominion Energy, the current owner of the plant, has been advocating for the recovery and preservation of the artifacts discovered during the cleanup project. The presence of live ammunition from the Civil War made the process challenging, but the project has still produced a wealth of artifacts that have helped locate and isolate the extent of the Sherman Dump Site in the river. The site is already eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places, and further screening and recovery efforts are ongoing.
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