By by Caroline Cropp ’99, ’06M
Measuring 210 feet in length and weighing 520 tons, the blockade runner Modern Greece ran aground off Fort Fisher in the early hours of June 27, 1862, while attempting to evade Union vessels. The ship was destined for Wilmington to deliver supplies for Confederate forces.
While some of the Modern Greece's cargo was salvaged in weeks following the wreck, the vessel gradually slipped beneath the sands and was largely forgotten until storms uncovered the wreck site in 1962. With the help of U.S. Navy divers, a major recovery operation began, leading to the establishment of North Carolina's underwater archaeology program.
In June, preeminent scholars from both sides of the ship celebrated the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the Civil War-era Modern Greece at an open house hosted by the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources at the Fort Fisher State Historic Site's Underwater Archaeology Branch lab. Faculty and student researchers from UNC Wilmington and East Carolina University have been involved in the recovery and restoration of artifacts uncovered at the underwater site.
"The 'coastal war' has been largely ignored by professional historians," says Chris Fonvielle '78, associate professor of history at UNCW and recognized Civil War scholar. "The state of the artifacts tell the story of the trade, it shows why defenses were built to protect."
He points out that as a major seaport in 1863, Wilmington was the "lifeline of the confederacy."
"The importance of Wilmington as a blockade running city should not be ignored," states Fonvielle. "General Robert E. Lee said himself, 'If Wilmington falls, I can not maintain my army'." A graduate of UNCW, Fonvielle also served as the last curator of the Blockade Runners of the Confederacy Museum.
Those attending the open house examined the rifles, hand tools and other items recovered from the Modern Greece. Visitors also toured the artifact conservation lab complete with new storage tanks. Standing above the large tubs housing the artifacts, one might have thought one was looking at parts of a rusted sewing machine. Luckily, there were experts on hand to answer the frequent questions of "What is that?"
Sarah Watkins-Kenney with the Underwater Archeology Branch explained that when recovered after 100 years, items were put into wet storage, which means they were not treated or cleaned with chemicals. This past year, certain pieces were pulled out deep wet storage, cleaned, assessed and cataloged, making them conserved. The restoration process is dependent on funding and staff. The goal, she said, is to have a fully restored conserved collection.
As part of the open house, State Cultural Resources Secretary Linda Carlisle, Kure Beach Mayor Dean Lambeth and other officials unveiled a new sign commemorating the Modern Greece at Fort Fisher. Organizers are also working to secure funding to underwrite a documentary film about the ship and its excavation.
Artifacts from Civil War blockade runner will be restored (News and Observer, March 8, 2012)
The Blockade Runner, Modern Greece, and Her Cargo (by Leslie Bright, 1977)
Re-excavating the Modern Greece (video)
State works to preserve artifacts from sunken blockade runners (StarNews, Aug. 7, 2011)