A Brief History
On March 19, 1965, a diver and soon to become underwater archaeologist discovered the wreck of the SS Georgiana, a Confederate States of America cruiser sunk in Charleston Harbor in 1863. Built in Scotland, the Georgiana was on her maiden voyage to Charleston when she encountered Union blockade vessels and was heavily damaged. The cruiser was scuttled to avoid capture, her cargo worth about $50 million, including 350 pounds of gold.
Perhaps the most powerful cruiser in the Confederate Navy, the actual purpose of the Georgiana is unknown. The 205 foot long, 25 foot wide brig rigged (with sails and masts) iron hulled steamship may have been intended as a privateer, a cargo vessel, or a warship. With at least 2 heavy guns and provisions for 14 to 20 more guns through the sides of the ship, she would have been well armed for her day.
Unfortunately for the 140 man crew and British captain, the guns were in her hold as she was to be fitted and crewed by Confederates once she landed at Charleston. The ships blockading Charleston, the yacht America and the USS Wissahickon spotted and intercepted the Georgiana, and the would be Confederate ship was quickly shot through both sides of her hull, also destroying her propeller and rudder. Knowing the ship was doomed, the British captain signaled surrender, but also had the ship scuttled before she could be boarded and taken as a prize. The entire crew survived.
Exactly 102 years (March 19, 1863 to March 19, 1965) from her sinking, the 18 year old E. Lee Spence discovered the wreck. Over the years of salvaging the wreck, Spence reported taking cargo and relics from the wreck worth at least $50 million, although the 350 pounds of gold has not been recovered, as much of the ship is under the sand and mud of the harbor, with only about 9 feet of her hull above the bottom.
Spence went on to a stellar career in underwater archaeology, graduating from the University of South Carolina. A child prodigy, he had discovered his first 5 wrecks by the time he was 12 years old! Spence’s most famous discovery, in 1970, was the H. L. Hunley, a Confederate submarine that sunk in 1864 after sinking the USS Housatonic.
Question for students (and subscribers): How many teenagers do you know that have discovered millions of dollars worth of treasure? If you do know of any, please share that information with us in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Coletta, Paolo E. and Raimondo Luraghi. A History of the Confederate Navy. Naval Inst Pr, 1996.
The featured image in this article, a photograph by E. Lee Spence of artifacts recovered from the wrecks of Georgiana and Mary Bowers, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License.