Wrightsville Beached

BY Kathy Southerly M.A.

When people think of shipwrecks they conjure up visions of remote locations — the dark and icy depths where the Titanic found its final rest for instance. Other times they imagine the wrecks closer to home in shallow more accessible graves like the infamous ship of Blackbeard the pirate the Queen Anne’s Revenge which lies just offshore near Beaufort Inlet farther up the North Carolina coast in Carteret County. But the little known truth is that we don’t have to go any farther than our own beautiful beach to find mysterious shipwrecks filled with historical treasure. The waters off our coastline hold many plots in the “Graveyard of the Atlantic ” and keep buried scores of secrets of the sea.

Some ships remain nameless skeletons off our shores. After a severe storm in 1926 a ship was uncovered in the sand on the northern end of Wrightsville Beach where many beachcombers had been over the years. While nothing was ever learned of this wreck other lost vessels reveal their identities yet offer little else but mystery.

In 1856 the Clementine a ship hailing from Cuba drifted onto the shore at Wrightsville Beach. Her structure was waterlogged and all that was left in her cargo hold were a few empty sugar boxes. The deck of the ship was swept clean of everything and not a soul remained aboard. What happened on the Clementine before it made landfall? Like many ships lost at sea the Clementine held fast to her secrets. Other ships from well-documented eras like the years of the Civil War still keep some secrets to themselves.

In the latter part of the Civil War three ships were sunk off Wrightsville Beach within days of one another. These ships lay within 300 yards of each other near the south end of the island. It was early February 1864 nearly a year before Wilmington fell to Union forces when the blockade runners Emily of London Dee and Fanny and Jenny fell prey to Union blockaders. As the fast running ships clandestinely skirted the Union blockade they were chased ashore set ablaze and completely destroyed. These were devastating losses for the Confederate cause. Wilmington was the only open Southern port during the last years of the Confederacy. The fall of Wilmington would mean the end of the Confederacy and blockade runners kept the supplies flowing. They smuggled sugar coal whiskey guns gunpowder and more into the Port City and these supplies were then distributed throughout the South. Emily of London Dee and Fanny and Jenny were among a fleet of 10 ships sailing from Nassau destined for Wilmington. One of the fleet turned back; two others were burned farther north; only three of the fleet’s 10 ships met with success in breaking through the blockade.

The ships approached North Carolina’s southern coast with their crews knowing the odds were stacked against them. The Fanny and Jenny was on her maiden voyage as a blockade runner when she met her end. The ship was an incredibly fast iron-hulled side-wheel steamer that could reach speeds of 13 knots and it carried a cargo of coal bacon and liquor that would never reach the port. But she carried something else that was just as valuable as the provisions she was to deliver: a memento of friendship from British sympathizers a symbol of support that would boost the morale of the Confederates.

This symbol was a solid gold sword encrusted with jewels and meant for the hand of Robert E. Lee. Union blockaders forced the Fanny and Jenny aground captured most of its crew and burned the ship and its cargo. The sword however was said to have survived the ship’s destruction.

William Keeler was the paymaster on the USS Florida the Union blockader that destroyed the Fanny and Jenny. Keeler wrote his wife that a captured sailor told him that the captain of the Fanny and Jenny disappeared into the cabin as the ship was being abandoned. When he reappeared he had the sword but as he tried to reach the shore his lifeboat was swamped and he drowned in swift and deadly currents. The jeweled sword was never recovered but rumors about it abound.

Since the Fanny and Jenny’s destruction many divers have made unsuccessful searches for the sword and detractors have argued that since it has never been found it’s a myth. But though the legendary sword has yet to be recovered other artifacts have been removed from the Fanny and Jenny. In the 1960s scuba divers recovered the ship’s anchor and proudly displayed it on the beach. Its remains lie beneath Crystal Pier at the southern end of the island.

“Many of the piers were actually built out to some of the blockade runners that ran aground during the Civil War ” says Mark Wilde-Ramsing an underwater archaeologist at North Carolina’s Underwater Archaeology Branch located right beside the Fort Fisher Museum 30 minutes south of Wrightsville Beach. Many businesses saw the wrecks as moneymaking opportunities and built these piers to provide easy access to good fishing. “Crystal Pier at the Oceanic was built out to the Fanny and Jenny. These wrecks make good fishing spots ” says Wilde-Ramsing.

In 1938 Crystal Pier was extended to 901 feet and fishermen were practically casting their lines as the last nails were driven into the structure. While constructing the pier builders dynamited the wreck of the Fanny and Jenny so they could drive in the pilings. Spectacular pyrotechnics were big social events said Dr. Chris Fonvielle a noted UNCW professor and Civil War historian. “They would advertise them in the newspaper and people would come to the beach and make a day of it to witness the destruction of these old curiosities.” During the late 19th and early 20th centuries many near-shore wrecks suffered the same fate as the Fanny and Jenny. Their destruction drew many new visitors to Wrightsville Beach a still-developing resort town. During the turn of the 19th century old shipwrecks were seen as a nuisance to tourists and developers alike. They were obstructions to be removed not sources of history yet to be uncovered.

Archaeologists became interested in the wrecks off our coast in the 1970s and by the 1980s they surveyed the shoreline using a magnetometer a torpedo-shaped device that is pulled behind a boat to locate lost vessels by analyzing the disturbances they cause in the earth’s natural magnetic field. Richard Lawrence deputy state archaeologist for the Underwater Archeology Branch of the North Carolina office of State Archeology said “There were several magnetic signatures that were distinctive and isolated around the jetty” (located at Masonboro Inlet at the southern end of Wrightsville Beach); the magnetic signatures that were especially distinctive were in the areas where the Fanny and Jenny the Emily of London and the Dee were reported to have been lost in 1864. Lawrence says “The wreck sites located between the Crystal Pier and the jetty were fairly sanded in and not visible on the seabed.” He advises that the locations of many of these wrecks are treacherous sites to dive and not a recommended excursion for a casual diver.

Wreck sites can be dangerous for even well-trained scuba divers to investigate. Many of these wrecks are located where the ocean surge is intense and the visibility is virtually nonexistent. Lawrence describes the experience of diving in this environment as diving in a washing machine while wearing a blindfold with a cup of sand in your wetsuit. However treacherous exploring the vessels may be they are tangible links to the importance of our beaches in our nation’s history as they continue to give up albeit slowly a sampling of their secrets.