The carefully constructed box of British-made rifles was intended for the hands of Confederate soldiers.
A century and a half later, after a failed blockade run, a fire and years resting in the sandy bottom of Charleston Harbor, the weathered container and its contents are instead a time capsule in the hands of conservators and archaeologists.
“The last time somebody looked at those, and put them on crates, was about 150 years ago,” said J. Doug Bailey, a gun collector who has studied the Pattern 1853 Enfield rifle-musket for more than three decades.
Twenty Enfields — the second most widely used infantry weapon in the Civil War after the Springfield — are being conserved by the Historic Preservation Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, which acquired the guns from South Carolina.
The crate carried by the doomed CSS Stono is currently on display
at Sweetwater Creek State Park in Douglas County, west of Atlanta, while the preservation lab at Panola Mountain State Park is being overhauled.
The rifles are in large aquarium of filtered freshwater that is drawing out salt and other contaminants.
“It (is) a once in a lifetime thing,” Josh Headlee, senior preservation technician with the division, told the Picket of the rare opportunity to conserve and study a case of Enfields.
Only three intact cases of the single-shot weapon are known, according to a 2007 Atlanta Journal-Constitution article.
Although the iron rifle barrels, locks and bayonets are heavily deteriorated from saltwater corrosion, the walnut stocks of the rifles are in “tremendous shape.”
Brass components, including butt plates, trigger guards and the nose cap at the end of the barrels better withstood the ravages of longtime submersion.
Researchers also found a bullet mold, tools and tampions, or cork and brass plugs inserted into the muzzle to ward off moisture.
At least one of the weapons bears the mark, “T. Turner,” a reference to well-known English gunmaker Thomas Turner, who turned out quality weapons in the mid-19th century.
The rifles came from the wreckage of the CSS Stono, a blockade runner — laden with precious arms, munitions and goods from Europe – that in 1863 ran aground on a submerged sandbar off Fort Moultrie while trying to evade Federal ships.
The CSS Stono was previously known as the USS Isaac Smith, a steamer that saw Federal service before its capture by Confederate land forces.
Some of the CSS Stono’s contents were retrieved by the South, but others, including the crate of Enfields, could not be salvaged, apparently because they were below the water line. In 1865, the “stuck” ship was burned to prevent it from falling into the hands of Federal troops.
An archaeological diver pulled up the crate from the South Carolina shipwreck in the late 1980s.
“The water was murky,” said Headlee. “He could not feel where the stack of rifles ended.”
Officials did not initially know how many of the highly-prized Pattern 53 rifles were inside, their position or condition. Each weapon weighed about 9 pounds and was approximately 53 inches long. The bore is .577 caliber.
“The Confederacy imported more Enfields during the course of the war than any other small arm,” according to the National Park Service. “It has been estimated that over 900,000 P53 Enfields were imported to America and saw service in every major battle from Shiloh in April 1862 through Vicksburg in 1863, to the final battles of 1865.”
The crate was originally curated by the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology (at the University of South Carolina), said David Crass, head of Georgia’s Historic Preservation Division.
The South Carolina institute did conserve smaller items, but donated the rifle crate to Georgia for extensive conservation treatment and display.
In early 2007, Headlee turned to Atlanta’s Delta Air Lines to X-ray the crate so that researchers would best know how to tackle the chore of conserving the metal lining and rifles.
A powerful industrial X-ray machine was unable to provide more than faint images through the packed sediment, which Headlee likened to concrete.
“I guess if we want to find out what we’ve got, we’ll have to start digging down a layer at a time,” he told The Journal-Constitution.
His words have proven true in the years since, with a “painstakingly slow” process of using hand tools to separate the rifles and other contents. “It took years to chip away,” Headlee told the Picket this week.
Most of the wooden crate is gone, but a lining made of tin and lead remains. One end of the crate was damaged, apparently when the CSS Stono sank.
After the level of sodium chloride is stabilized, officials will consider longer-term conservation techniques. The state hopes to eventually place the crate on permanent display after the long conservation process.
Bailey, who lives in Roswell, Ga., told the Picket that the North also imported thousands of Enfields from Europe before it increased production of the venerable Springfield rifle. The South, with limited manufacturing capacity, was heavily dependent on imported weapons and goods.
On today’s market, a P53 Enfield in rough condition can go for as little as a few hundred dollars, while rarer specimens may fetch as much as $10,000.
The 1851 and 1853 Enfields, made for the British army, were an important technological advance from smoothbore to rifled muskets, increasing the accuracy and distance, said Bailey. “They were very well made.”
Headlee asked Bailey to take a look at the rifles, and they found the Thomas Turner mark clearly visible on one weapon.
“Some of the stocks were in amazing condition and we washed them off,” he said. “I was taken they went to so much trouble and time to pack them.”
The metal lining sealed the cargo from salt air and ensured the rifles were not tampered with. Inside, the rifles were placed in an alternating butt to muzzle pattern. Wooden blocks were used to prevent the weapons from shifting.