A Quest for Higher Ground: The Recovery of the CSS Neuse
The Neuse was deliberately sunk in a bend in the river, near the terminus of present-day Bright Street in Kinston. After the Battle of Wyse Fork, Kinston was occupied by Union forces. The 15th Connecticut was appointed as provost guard of the town. During their time in Kinston, they examined the “rebel ram” and are said to have taken souvenirs, such as colt revolvers, from the wreckage. After the war the CSS Neuse remained at the bottom of the Neuse River until the United States Treasury Department auctioned off the remains to a New York company in October 1865. The following year, the company salvaged the machinery, armor plating, and guns from the ironclad. Following the removal of these objects, no further serious attempts were made to salvage or recover the ship until the centennial of the Civil War in 1961. At times the stern of the Neuse could be seen protruding from the river, and the site became known as “Gunboat Bend.”
In the late 1930s, Henry Clay Casey, a Kinston native, began digging around the vessel with a shovel. Although the youth had no idea of the ship's actual history or physical dimensions, he continued "poking about" for some time before abandoning his efforts.
In 1940, Mrs. W. D. Pollock of Wilson, North Carolina, (daughter of Gen. Robert F. Hoke) wrote the Army Corps of Engineers regarding the feasibility of raising the vessel and moving it to higher ground. The Corps studied the location of the gunboat and estimated that it would cost $20,000 to recover the ship. In arriving at this estimation, the District Engineer from Wilmington assessed historical records and calculated that the ship was 200 feet in length and 50 feet wide. The engineer's report stated that the vessel was visible "above ordinary low water." Prior to 1932, the report added, some portions of the ship were visible during "extremely" low water, and "at the time all of the superstructure and practically all of the sides have been carried away by freshets." The report also explained that since 1932 local fishermen had removed many of the ship's hand-wrought spikes to serve as weights for their fishing nets.
The Corps of Engineers' report concluded that since the bottom of the ship was the only portion remaining, it did not present a problem with navigation in the river. The Corps further stated that it did not have the authority to remove the vessel, and suggested that it was impractical "to raise the remains of the hull intact in its present condition."
Consequently, recovery of the Neuse was forgotten until the summer of 1954, when six local high school boys excavated about 14 "live" Brooke percussion projectiles from the wreck site. The artillery rounds were relatively easy to remove because the river was low, and most of the sand-filled ship was covered with only a foot of water.
When Casey found out about the recovery of the Brooke shells, his interest in the Neuse was again revived. He contacted Lemuel Houston, a professional logger, about the possibility of removing the ship from the river. Houston was only mildly interested in Casey's plans, but in 1956 he joined in a half-hearted venture to recover the gunboat. The two men worked at the site for a brief period but halted operations when they realized the project would take more money and equipment than they had originally estimated.
In 1961, Casey and Houston contacted a third man, Thomas Carlyle, of Swansboro, North Carolina, about forming a partnership to salvage the Neuse. Carlyle owned a drag line that could dig sand from the ship's hull much faster than simple shovels. The three men agreed that if the ship was recovered they would split evenly whatever profits were made in the sale of the vessel and its contents. The team was determined that their effort to raise the century-old warship would be successful. On October 27, 1961, Carlyle's drag line was unloaded at the wreck site, and the salvage operation commenced.
The amateur recovery team knew virtually nothing about the ship's true dimensions. Casey, a mechanic by profession, thought the gunboat to be no longer than 50 feet. The ship was originally more than three times that length. Practical aspects of the recovery, such as the changing level of the river, the massive weight of the sand and ship itself, and the heavy removal equipment needed were given little consideration. As Carlyle stated, "We were like the Three Stooges — we really didn't know what we were getting into, but we were game to give it a try." The men thought the recovery would be a simple matter of removing sand from the ship's hull, and then moving the hull to dry land. The trio was sure the operation could be completed in one week.
The salvagers planned to remove sand and debris from the wreck and deposit it back into the river, forming a rude cofferdam around the vessel. This would give the men additional ground on which to work. When the operation began the river was low (3.17 feet), allowing the plan to work.
On the second day, two mud pumps were brought in to facilitate the removal of sand and muck from the interior passages and compartments of the ship. At the end of the second day, some timber portions of the hull and a metal hatch were recovered.
After the first week of the operation, a whiskey bottle and a few spikes had been recovered. The project began to attract local attention, and curious onlookers gathered at the wreck site to watch the removal effort unfold. The river level remained low, and the weather was ideal.
By the end of the second week, the team realized the vessel would not float on its own, even if most of the sand was removed from the hull. A search began for pontoons to assist in buoying the hulk. The site was also strung with electric lights so that work could continue during the nighttime hours. Shovels, purchased by the ambitious trio, were handed out to anyone who was willing to work. A local Boy Scout troop donated a tent to house recovered artifacts and to serve as headquarters for the salvage crew.
After two weeks of work, the salvage effort was progressing slowly. The weather continued mild, the river remained low, and the equipment functioned properly. An interesting cache of artifacts began to emerge from the wreck. Numerous projectiles, pots and pans, two stoves, coffee grinders, and the ship's bell were hauled up from the bowels of the vessel during this time.
Two serious issues, however, soon threw a kink into the operation. Water began to leak through the cofferdam, and the salvaging threesome began to run low on money. Houston initially believed that a little more time and $700.00 would finish the project, but after a month's worth of effort and consideration, the trio reached a more realistic estimation.
In mid-November, when it seemed that work would have to be suspended due to money shortages, Lamar Jones, Chairman of the Lenoir County Civil War Centennial Commission, went before the County Commissioners to request funding to complete the project. Thomas White, County attorney, replied that the County believed that, legally, nothing could be done to secure funds at that time. White then contacted state officials for information on available money at that level, but he received no immediate reply.
The state, however, expressed interest in the venture—though it was not initially committed financially. Norman Larson, executive secretary of the State Confederate Centennial Commission, told Kinston county commissioners: "You have something no one else has." Larson noted that while similar excavations for the ironclads USS Cairo and CSS Jackson were then underway in the South, the Neuse was unique in that it had suffered negligible damage thus far during recovery. He assured the commissioners that, regardless of any contributions the state might make during the operation, the vessel would remain in Kinston. The commissioners replied that the county attorney was then negotiating a release with the salvage team, so that the county could underwrite the entire project. Public contributions, the commissioners pointed out, were keeping the operation afloat financially. In addition, the local Chamber of Commerce raised $1,500.00 and donated the money for the recovery effort.
Though problems continued to plague the operation, the salvage team was determined to forge ahead with plans to raise the gunboat. Casey worked practically around the clock. He made a personal vow that he would not sleep "until we get her up," and remained at the site through many nights, supervising work on the project. Huge crowds continued to flock to the wreck area, with some onlookers foregoing their coffee breaks at work to check on the ship's progress. During the first month, the effort produced "more excitement in this area than has been experienced in a long time."
As November 1961 came to a close, another troublesome problem arose to delay the salvage effort. A heated controversy erupted over ownership rights to the wreck and its contents. Rumors circulated around Kinston that ownership of the vessel was uncertain, and that work at the site should be postponed until a legitimate claim could be established. Some people believed the federal government owned the ship, while others thought that the state or county was the rightful owner.
The county could provide no clear-cut answers to the question. State officials expressed concern for the vessel and its contents, but could not resolve the issue because, at that time, there was no definitive state law governing derelicts like the Neuse.
The three salvagers were, of course, operating under the assumption that they owned the vessel. The trio reminded everyone that it was through their efforts that work had begun to raise the gunboat. They also contended that they had spent a small fortune and a great deal of time thus far in the venture. Houston admitted that he had even borrowed money to continue the recovery operation.
Finally, the tension was relieved when the salvage partners signed an "agreement" with the County Confederate Centennial Committee on November 20. The agreement provided that Casey, Houston, and Carlyle release all claims to the ship to the committee for a sum of $4,000.00. In addition, the partners would receive a reasonable compensation for expenses incurred during the remaining recovery operations. This amount would be paid upon completion of the ship's recovery. The agreement further stipulated that the men would receive assistance from the county in the form of additional equipment. The trio sold contents recovered from the wreck to the Centennial Committee for $8,000.00, and optioned to release their claim to the Neuse for an additional $7,000.00 when the gunboat was moved to its permanent home.
With the ownership squabble resolved, recovery efforts continued at "Gunboat Bend." The ship needed to be raised quickly to avoid the heavy winter rains. The Neuse, however, would prove every bit as difficult to recover as it had been to complete and implement during the Civil War. Cables were run underneath the ship, and sealed metal drums were attached to serve as flotation devices. Thirty drums were lashed inside the hull, and 90 were fastened on the outside and near the bottom. As sand was removed from the hull, the bow of the great ship began to float for the first time in nearly 100 years. Braces were attached inside the hull to prevent the sides from collapsing, and two large 500-gallon drums were attached to the stern.
Hopes for the ship's recovery by Christmastime ran high until mid-December brought another discouraging setback. The river began to rise. In spite of the considerable time and effort expended on reinforcing the cofferdam, high water caused its eventual collapse. Water gushed into the stern area of the vessel, and she settled once again to the bottom of the river.
The team rushed to keep the hulk from becoming mired again in the sand and muck of the river bottom. A cable, attached to a large oil drum, was run underneath the ship and attached to a winch on shore. As the winch was tightened, the drum was pulled into the water, displacing some of the hull's weight, and lifting it to some degree. When all seemed to be going well, the cable snapped — and the hull once again settled to the river bottom. The disappointed salvagers sought another strategy for pulling the hulk ashore.
This time around, steel cables were attached to the ship's bow and then connected to trees on the opposite side of the river using a system of pulleys. The cables were then run back across the river and secured to winches on two trucks loaned by Carolina House Movers, of Jacksonville, North Carolina. The workmen engaged the winches, and hopes rose as the ship began to move slightly. But the tremendous weight of the vessel, coupled with the thrust of the river on the port side, proved too much for the improvised block and tackle system. The supporting trees on the riverbank soon buckled and snapped, and the uncooperative hulk remained on the river bottom. Inclement weather and rising water levels soon forced a halt to the entire recovery effort. The year 1961 ended on a disappointing note for the salvage partners, and all equipment — except for one water pump — was removed from the wreck site. Artifacts recovered thus far were transported to a warehouse at the local airport for storage.
The new year brought another unexpected ownership controversy when one of the heirs to the land at the wreck site laid claim to the vessel and its contents. Mrs. Helen Cox Muzinich went before the Kinston City Council and voiced her opinion that, since her family owned the land adjacent to the wreck, she had a legal right to the ship and any artifacts therein. She explained that permission to excavate on this land had never been granted to the salvage team. When asked why she had not come forward sooner, the woman claimed that she had merely been "looking at it from a civic standpoint."
As a result, Chamber of Commerce president Dan Lilley presented to county commissioners a petition signed by Kinston residents urging that ownership of the vessel be established without doubt. The state's Department (now Division) of Archives and History also recommended to the city's mayor that definitive ownership be authenticated, a proper title secured, and a permanent site acquired to house the ship after recovery. After several days of legal discussions with the Cox heirs, the family released their claim to the ship and its contents for a payment of $5,000.00. Of this amount, $1,500.00 was contributed by the salvage team, while the remainder was secured from public donations.
The months that followed marked a period of physical decline for the old warship. As photos from the salvage operation reveal, the gunboat was in relatively pristine condition when the amateur salvage operation began. Though the gunboat's casemate superstructure was gone, most of the ship's deck was intact — and its internal compartments housed nearly 15,000 artifacts of various sizes and states of preservation. These fascinating images show workmen clearly standing on the deck of the ship, as well as within the vessel's compartments. During the months of inactivity, however, the swift and rising river began to reclaim the ship. Large amounts of sand once again washed into the hull, and a portion of the top decking washed away and was never recovered.
In the summer of 1962 the river receded, leaving a major portion of the hull exposed to the open air. Throughout the summer, deterioration of the Neuse accelerated, and several incidents of vandalism occurred. A new sense of urgency arose for pulling the ship from the river, once and for all.
Efforts to obtain additional funding were fruitless until November, when the City Council and Lenoir County officials each appropriated $4,500.00 to settle debts to the salvage team and to move the ship to higher ground.
Several firms were considered before a contract was signed with Humphrey House Movers of Jacksonville. For a sum of $5,000.00, the house movers were to lift the hull, place rollers beneath it, and move the ship to higher ground. It did not take long, however, for the Humphrey firm to realize that the bulk of the CSS Neuse was far beyond the abilities of the company's moving equipment. In mid-January 1963, the river rose again, forcing yet another halt to the operation. The Jacksonville crew packed up and left the site, never to return.
By the spring of 1963, the river had receded again. Another house moving firm was sought, and a contract was signed with D. C. Murray, of Rose Hill, North Carolina. The Murray firm was tasked with raising the ship and transporting it to a permanent home. Murray's crew began work on May 7, with a crew of nine men operating a bulldozer, a wrecker, a crane, and five winch trucks. The Neuse was in for another round of serious physical damage.
Murray's plan for recovery was similar to that of the original salvage team. The firm built another cofferdam around the gunboat, and cut down the riverbank adjacent to the wreck.
The stern of the ship was still buried under sand when the crew began working. The vessel was jacked up, and cribbings and log rollers, 45 feet in length, were placed underneath the ship. A pump was employed to remove water that seeped in through the cofferdam. The crew drilled a series of holes, one inch in diameter, into the sides and bottom of the ship. Cables were then run through the holes and secured to a truck, winches, and bulldozer.
As with previous efforts to pull the wreck ashore, the cables snapped under the weight of the massive vessel. The crew attacked the project with renewed vigor, this time jacking the hull higher, and installing additional cribbings. After some effort, the workmen were ready for another attempt to haul the craft from the river. The equipment was employed as before and, at long last, the vessel began to slide gently from the water. As it did so, the remaining decking — so beautifully intact when the salvage effort began — came crashing down, and water that had collected in the bow spewed forth upon the riverbank. The two-year effort to snatch the hulk from the bosom of the Neuse River was finally complete.
Though the old gunboat was at last free of its watery grave, it was not free from continued peril. During the summer of 1963, the Neuse sat on the riverbank, where it was allowed to dry out completely. The timbers and planking along the sides of the hull warped and split under the hot summer sun, and scavengers ripped off planks and pounded out spikes for souvenirs. The task of moving the ruined hulk to a permanent home still lay ahead.
That November, North Carolina's Governor Terry Sanford approved the allocation of $10,000.00 for transporting the Neuse, and applying wood preservatives to the remaining hull remnant. Meetings were also held between state and local officials regarding a proper course for relocating the ship.
The Neuse's estimated weight of 500 tons precluded the vessel's being moved in one piece. It was decided that the hull remnant would be severed into three 50-foot sections and transported piecemeal to its new home at Caswell Memorial Park. Once at the Caswell site, the ship would be reassembled upon blocks until a permanent cradle could be constructed.
The recurring problem of high water managed to hamper the final stage of the operation. By December the river had risen to a depth of more than 12 feet, flooding the riverbank and preventing workers and equipment from reaching the ship's remains. It was not until May 1964 that the water level dropped enough to allow Murray's crew to return to work.
On May 18, the first 50-foot section was severed from the hull, and minor difficulties arose as the crew's chain saws struck various metal fittings on or within the hull. Cables were attached to provide stability during the cutting and moving process. When the first section was removed, three steel I-beams supported by dollies were positioned beneath it. It was then transported five miles away to the permanent display site at Caswell Park. Within two weeks, the remaining sections were severed and transported to the Caswell site, where the hull was reconstructed from the three separate sections.
Speculation, however, soon arose as to whether all of the ship's contents had been recovered from the river. In August 1966, a search was launched at the former wreck site, spearheaded by the local Confederate Centennial Committee in cooperation with the Kinston City Council. The city furnished equipment and labor for the task.
The renewed search, termed "Operation Magic Hole," was launched with the expectation of recovering the ship's machinery, guns, and casemate. After two days of searching, a portion of the casemate was recovered. The 9x12-foot section was believed to have been one of the broadside panels located in the area between the ship's gun ports.
Though "Operation Magic Hole" failed to recover the ship's machinery and guns, two large pieces of armor plating were found. Other items recovered included an ax, a grappling hook, wrench ramrod, spikes, and numerous unidentified metal objects. The project was suspended after two weeks, bringing all search and recovery efforts to an end. Further research has uncovered that the machinery, cannons, and most of the iron plating were actually recovered in 1865.
At the Caswell display site, the reassembled hull was cleaned and a temporary preservative treatment was applied. Finally, in 1969 an enormous shelter—70 feet wide and 180 feet long—was erected over the warship's remains to provide protection from the elements. Formal preservation of the hull remnant began in 1970.
The original display site, only yards from the banks of the Neuse, was located on the river's flood plain. Consequently, rising water in the area was a common problem. In September 1996, Hurricane Fran caused the Neuse to spill its banks, flooding the display site and damaging the remains of the old gunboat.
In 1998 the CSS Neuse was moved to higher ground on the site. The following year, eastern North Carolina suffered from extreme flooding during hurricanes Dennis and Floyd. This left the visitor center and museum uninhabitable due to standing flood waters. The artifacts were recovered from the building after the waters started to recede and were taken to Raleigh for re-conservation.
On June 23, 2012, the hull remnants of the ironclad C.S.S. Neuse were once again moved in three sections to a new home in downtown Kinston. The C.S.S. Neuse Gunboat Association, a non-profit support group, purchased the site of the new C.S.S. Neuse Civil War Interpretive Center, and donated it to the State of North Carolina. A number of artifacts have also returned to Kinston for display at the Center. Located at 100 North Queen Street, this fully enclosed and climate-controlled facility is currently open to the public for tours. A grand opening of the facility is scheduled for summer or fall of 2014.
CSS Neuse: A Question of Iron and Time, by Leslie S. Bright, William H. Rowland, and James C. Bardon (North Carolina Office of Archives and History, 1981).