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Revolutionary discovery: 19 guns in the river probably sunk in 1779


Commodore Philip Nash, left, of Britain’s Royal Navy, receives a briefing from U.S. Army Corps of Engineers archaeologist Andrea Farmer Thursday, April 28, 2022, in Savannah, Ga. About 19 guns recovered from the Savannah River, which experts suspect came from one or more British ships scuttled in the river during the American Revolution in 1779. (AP Photo/Russ Bynum)


A warehouse along the Savannah River houses historic treasures that evidence shows have lain lost for more than 240 years – a cache of 19 guns that researchers suspect came from British ships scuttled at the bottom of the river during the Revolution American.

The mud- and rust-encrusted barrels were discovered by accident. A dredge picking up sediment from the riverbed last year as part of a $973 million deepening of the busy Savannah shipping channel surfaced with one of the barrels clutched in its metal jaws. The crew quickly dug up two more.

Archaeologists speculated it may have been the remains of a Confederate gunship sunk years earlier in the same area, said Army Corps of Engineers archaeologist Andrea Farmer. But US Navy experts found they did not match any known guns used in the Civil War. Further research indicates they are probably nearly a century older and sank during the build-up to the bloody siege of Savannah during the Revolutionary War in 1779.

In just over a year, 19 guns were hoisted from the same area of ​​the river a few miles downriver from Savannah, where Georgia was founded as the last of Britain’s 13 American colonies in 1733.

“They’re in remarkably good condition,” Farmer said. “Many were buried in clay and covered in silt and debris that kind of protected them.”

Now officials from the US and UK governments, as well as the state of Georgia, are working together on a deal to preserve the newly discovered weapons before putting them on display. Britain’s Royal Navy Commodore Philip Nash, a Washington-based military attaché, saw the artifacts submerged in metal water tubs during a visit Thursday.

“Some of these pieces are in amazing condition and I’m sure I could tell stories,” Nash said.

The barrels are kept in water to prevent further deterioration until experts can thoroughly clean them. Meanwhile, researchers are looking for more definitive evidence linking the guns to British ships of the American Revolution.

Farmer said the researchers were very confident in the connection. Savannah had been under British occupation for about a year in the fall of 1779, when the colonists planned an attack to retake the city with the help of French and Haitian allies.

When French ships carrying troops were spotted off the Georgian coast, the British rushed to scuttle at least six ships in the Savannah River below the city to block the French vessels. The ground battle that followed was one of the bloodiest of the war. British forces killed nearly 300 colonial fighters and their allies, while wounding hundreds more.

Farmer said searchers suspected the guns found in the river were from the British ship HMS Savannah and possibly a second ship scuttled at the same time, HMS Venus. The longer barrels appear to match barrels made in France in the mid-1700s, she said. Researchers are looking for ship’s logs and manifests in hopes of confirming the armaments aboard these ships.

It is also possible that the cannons themselves and other artifacts found at the site – pieces of anchors and part of a ship’s bell – when cleaned, bore marks or other clues to which they belonged. The wood on these ships, Farmer said, decayed long ago or was destroyed by previous dredging projects over a series of decades.

The question of who owns the artifacts gets a bit murky. They were found in Georgia state waters during a dredging project run by the Army Corps, a US government agency. The British government could claim ownership if there is strong evidence that the artifacts came from British ships.

Farmer said all of those parties were working on a deal to preserve the cannons and eventually have them put on display at the Savannah History Museum, which includes the battlefield where the bloodiest fighting took place during the 1779 siege.

“Everybody wants to keep the artifacts in Savannah,” Farmer said, “because it makes the most sense.”