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19 Cannons Found in River, Most Likely Sunk in 1779

A warehouse along the Savannah River is home to historical artifacts that have been missing for more than 240 years, including a cache of 19 cannons believed to have come from British ships sunk to the river bottom during the American Revolution.

The mud- and rust-encrusted guns were discovered by accident. Last year, as part of a $973 million deepening of Savannah’s busy shipping channel, a dredge excavating material from the riverbed surfaced with one of the cannons clasped in its metal jaws. Two more were shortly discovered by the crew.

Archaeologists believe these were artifacts from a sunken Confederate warship discovered nearby a few years ago, according to Andrea Farmer, an Army Corps of Engineers archaeologist. However, experts for the US Navy discovered that they didn’t match any known Civil War cannons. According to additional research, they’re almost a century old and sank during the Revolutionary War’s bloody siege of Savannah in 1779.

19 cannons were hoisted from the same point of the river a few miles downstream from Savannah, where Georgia was created as the last of Britain’s thirteen American colonies in 1733, in just over a year.

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

Officials from the United States and the United Kingdom, as well as the state of Georgia, are now working on an arrangement to conserve the newly discovered guns before they are displayed. During a visit on Thursday, Commodore Philip Nash of the British Royal Navy, a military attaché based in Washington, observed the items immersed in metal tubs of water.

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

The cannons are being kept in water to prevent further degradation until they can be cleaned by experts. Meanwhile, researchers are hunting for more concrete evidence that the cannons were fired from British ships during the American Revolution.

According to Farmer, experts are quite sure of the connection. By the fall of 1779, Savannah had been under British occupation for approximately a year, and colonists were planning an attack to regain the city with the support of French and Haitian friends.

When French ships carrying troops were discovered off the coast of Georgia, the British moved quickly to sink at least six ships in the Savannah River, downstream from the city, to block the French vessels. The battlefield was one of the bloodiest of the war.

Nearly 300 colonial fighters and their allies were killed by British soldiers, with hundreds injured.

Researchers believe the cannons discovered in the river came from the British ship HMS Savannah and maybe a second ship, the HMS Venus, which sank at the same time. According to her, the longer weapons appear to be cannons made in France in the mid-1700s. Ship documents and manifests are being examined by researchers in the hopes of confirming the weapons aboard those ships.

It’s also likely that the cannons and other relics discovered at the site, such as anchor pieces and a fragment of a ship’s bell, would retain markings or other indications to whose ship they belonged to once cleaned.

Farmer says that the timber from those ships has deteriorated for decades or has been damaged by previous dredging projects.

The ownership of the objects becomes a little murky. They were discovered in Georgia state waters during a dredging effort led by the Army Corps, a federal government department. If there is strong evidence that the items came from British ships, the British government might claim ownership.

All of those parties, according to Farmer, are working on a deal to conserve the guns and eventually show them at the Savannah History Museum, which includes the battlefield where the heaviest combat took place during the 1779 siege.

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

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