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Fifty years after they were salvaged and placed in wet storage, the contents of a Confederate blockade runner have reemerged

frogmen hand up a
part of a gun stock

In 1962, divers from the U.S. Navy salvaged artifacts from Modern Greece, a Civil War blockade runner. The frogmen hand up a part of a gun stock.
(Courtesy North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources)

The freighter made its way, under cover of night in June 1862, toward Wilmington Harbor in North Carolina. In its cargo hold were barrels, boxes, and bundles tightly layered with rifles, ammunition, tools, tin and lead ingots, and medical supplies needed by the Confederate army. The ship, Modern Greece, also carried flatware, plates, and liquor for the civilian market.

Just before dawn, as Modern Greece attempted to sneak past the Union blockade of the port, it ran aground about three-quarters of a mile offshore, near Fort Fisher. Rebel soldiers from the fort salvaged what they could—especially the liquor, arms, and cannon—but faced constant fire from Union ships. Before long, the remains of the blockade runner, and what was left of its cargo, had slipped beneath the waves.

Modern Greece lay buried on the seafloor for 100 years, until 1962, when local divers led U.S. Navy frogmen on leave to the ship after a spring nor'easter had uncovered its wreck. The state of North Carolina invited the frogmen to salvage the ship, and over the next few weeks they raised guns, knives, and household goods, many still in their original, though deteriorated, packaging. The waterlogged artifacts were rushed into tubs and sinks in local homes.

At that time there were few techniques beyond rinsing and wet storage for the conservation and long-term preservation of artifacts that had spent so much time in salt water. Further, there were far more recovered items than the state could handle. Some items, such as a few Enfield rifles, Bowie knives, surgical instruments, and tools, were treated and displayed, generating tremendous public interest. But the rest of the wreck's thousands of artifacts were moved to a makeshift storage facility—several water-filled containers open to the elements. Over time, these holding tanks accumulated organic matter that decayed into thick sediment. The cargo of Modern Greece remained there until now, waiting for a second excavation.

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Marion Blackburn is a freelance writer based in Greenville, North Carolina.