Author: Stephen Atkinson, Assistant State Archaeologist
Of the submerged cultural resources in North Carolina, shipwrecks are certainly the most numerous. The North Carolina coast is known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic, because of the thousands of ships lost through the centuries to wars, accidents, and our treacherous and unpredictable waters. Here is an example of a ship that met its fate in our waters.
The City of Wilmington has a storied history of being a hub for blockade running during the Civil War, and was a city that blockade runners would go to great lengths to reach. The Union would often blockade important Confederate ports to prevent much needed goods from entering, forcing a surrender of the port. Blockade running was a method employed by the Confederacy to combat this siege and get goods like clothing and weapons into cities. Light and fast merchant vessels would use stealth and speed to sneak through the blockade, rather than confronting the Union warships. It was a dangerous task and many vessels were lost trying to run the Union blockade of the Cape Fear River, attempting to make their way to the protection of the confederate guns of Fort Fisher. If they were successful, they could travel into the Cape Fear River through New Inlet, toward the city with their goods. Some vessels were instead captured rather than sunk, and these became part of the blockade itself. Such was the case with the iron screw steamer Peterhoff.
Peterhoff was built in England, intended to be employed in trading in the Baltics, but the high profits of blockade running convinced the builders to send the vessel to the Confederacy. The vessel was captured by the US Navy on its second blockade running voyage while leaving the West Indies, laden with contraband goods intended for trade and falsified travel papers. Peterhoff became the property of the US Navy and was put into service on the blockade of the Cape Fear River as the USS Peterhoff.
Its construction, which had clear and open decks, made it possible for the Navy to outfit it with additional armament including a 12-pounder Dahlgren howitzer on the fantail, a 30-pounder Parrott Rifle on the bow and six 32-pounder smoothbores. On the morning of March 6, 1864, only a week after taking up station off New Inlet, Peterhoff was rammed by USS Monticello after its deck officer mistakenly identified the new USS Peterhoff as a Confederate blockade runner. The ships collided at 5:10 A.M., sinking Peterhoff almost immediately in 33 feet of water.
Peterhoff became the subject of archaeological investigations in the mid-1960s, not long after the Underwater Archaeology Branch (UAB) was founded to support the excavations of the Modern Greece. Ordnance was recovered from the site by the United States Navy in the 1960s, and in 1974, the UAB recovered two 32-pounder smoothbores, and one 30-pounder Parrott rifle,
along with elements of a small naval carriage for a 12-pounder Dahlgren howitzer. All of the ordnance matches the historical inventory of the Peterhoff’s battery.
One of these 32-pounder guns has been conserved and is on display in front of the Fort Fisher Visitor Center. Several additional 32-pounder smoothbores, identified in 1997, remain at the site, which has now become a popular fishing site for the local community.
All images by the NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.