Confederate Blockade Runner – Agnes E. Fry – Found At Long Last?

Billy Ray Morris employed as a deputy state archaeologist and Gordon Watts, the director of the Institute for International Maritime Research, believe that they have found the wreck of a Confederate blockade runner, called the Agnes E. Fry.

The Agnes E. Fry, which was named The Fox when launched, was built by Caird & Co in their shipyard at Greenock, which is situated on the River Clyde in Scotland. The iron-hulled paddle steamer was powered by two oscillating steam engines and was sold to the Confederates to be used as a blockade runner during the American Civil War. When Joseph Fry took command of the vessel he renamed it after his wife.

These fast, little ships were ideally situated to run the Union Navy’s blockade into Wilmington, North Carolina, which was the last of the Confederate ports. The lifeline thrown to the Confederate states by these blockade runners was hugely important and as a result, they were fiercely pursued by the Union Navy. Manoeuvring these ships, fully laden with supplies for the Confederacy, often in the dead of night on those nights with little or no moon, was a perilous exercise and many were run aground.

Morris and Watts were undertaking a repeat survey of the waters around North Carolina and during the course of this survey they found that wrecks that had been previously mapped were now exposed. They attributed this exposure to the dredging of the rivers near Wilmington and it raised the point that if the previously known wrecks were exposed could the wrecks of the missing three blockade runners, known to have been lost around Oak Island, also have been exposed?

The survey team worked their way around Oak Island and using a magnetometer alongside side-scan sonar, and a previously unmapped wreck was brought to light. The magnetometer measures the distortion caused by a metal hull and the side scan sonar uses sound waves to create a three-dimensional picture of the sea floor.

The wreck appeared to have an overall length of 225 feet and research conducted by the survey team in Bermuda indicated that of the three missing blockade runners the Agnes E. Fry was the only one whose hull measured longer than 200 feet. Bermuda was a favourite provisioning stop for the blockade runners before they made their final dash for the Carolina coast.

In addition to the information collected in Bermuda, salvage records from Carolina showed that the engine and paddlewheel of the Agnes E Fry had been salvaged when she ran aground. These two items were hugely important and extremely expensive as the paddle wheel design was optimised to ensure little or no splashing and the engines were designed to burn the very highest quality smokeless coal.

Both of these attributes were very important in a blockade runner and whilst the hull may not have been salvageable thee expensive parts would most certainly have been removed for use in another ship.

Once the scans showed that there was a ship lying in the mud, divers went down to see if they could add anything to the initial scan data. Unfortunately, this was an impossible task. The water around Oak Island is pitch black, stained by tannins from trees growing upriver.

Morris, who has dived around North Carolina since he was a young man said, “Imagine sticking your face in a cup of black coffee and opening your eyes.” However, the divers could still use touch and they determined that the paddlewheels and engine were missing.

Interest in the wreck has been phenomenal and once news of the find was released, Morris received calls from many people offering their help. One of the most interesting calls was from the great-great-granddaughter of the chief engineer aboard the Agnes E. Fry on that fateful evening. She had possession of his journal that described the terror of the night the vessel ran aground.

The survey team knew that they needed to refine their imaging and the only process that would provide a vastly improved image was sector scan sonar. Sector scan sonar would allow a detailed three-dimensional image of the wreck to be produced.

Sector scan sonar can be a hugely expensive exercise but Morris has received an extremely generous offer from the special operations divers of the Charlotte Fire Department who have offered to bring the equipment from the Nautilus Marine Group International and undertake the survey. The divers will set up a tripod on the sea floor and mount the sonar device on it.

The sonar device will send out sound waves that bounce off everything in the vicinity and the data is sent back to a computer located on the dive boat. The image provided by the sound waves will create a detailed three-dimensional image of whatever lies in its path.

Using modern technology we will once again add another small piece to the knowledge of the history of the world. Based on the entries in the chief engineer’s journal, Morris knows that the vessel was not fully unloaded before the crew fled from the approaching Union Navy so it is intriguing to read a letter from the commander at Fort Fisher who requested information about the whereabouts of the Agnes E Fry.

What could have been aboard the ship that he was so interested in? What else was in the holds and abandoned by the crew? Perhaps the new sonar scans will shed some light on this mystery.   We, like everyone else, will have to wait and see!

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE