Submerged Civil War relics could get a new home
Aug. 21, 2012
SELMA — The Civil War was in its final hours and Union troops had two more missions to complete, something that gave them great pleasure.
One was to burn Selma to the ground April 2, 1865. The other was to destroy as many weapons as they could by dumping them into the Alabama River.
As one of only two major armament manufacturing centers in the Confederacy, Selma churned out millions of killing tools — from bullets to rifles, from mortars to cannons.
It took up to a week to send them to a watery grave not far from where the Edmund Pettus Bridge — a symbol of the civil rights era — would be dedicated 85 years later.
That’s where the weapons rest today — at the bottom of the Alabama River where divers occasionally drop in to see what they can find, if they can see anything at all in the murky water.
They’re looking for a different kind of treasure, one that might enrich them by selling a bit of history to eager buyers or to just display it in their dens.
Occasionally, scavengers will be arrested or given warnings for dredging up Civil War artifacts. That doesn’t seem to stop them, however. Some work at night.
The question of what to do with those rusty, mud-caked weapons has been debated for years, but a Selma leader has been given the task of developing possible solutions.
City Councilman Greg Bjelke, a local landscaper accustomed to making flowers grow and not studying the final resting places of Civil War relics, feels he’s more than up to the task.
“What’s down there is a part of Selma’s history and can also be a tourist attraction,” he said. “I look forward to seeing what they bring up.”
That won’t happen soon because it’s going to take time to do some research before the actual recovery can begin.
Financial support has been approved by federal and state agencies in the form of a $13,160 grant for the city of Selma to study ways to protect the weapons above and below the water line.
It’s all part of the Maritime Study for Underwater Resources in Selma — a project involving the U.S. Department of the Interior, the Alabama Historical Commission and the Selma City Council.
Bjelke said the grant will fund a yearlong study — beginning with documentation and, hopefully, ending with historic discoveries.
“I know how dark the water is at that location, but sonar can be a big help in finding metal objects,” Bjelke said. “Once that happens, recovery operations can begin.”
Selma historian Alston Fitts sees nothing wrong with finding and raising Civil War weapons from their watery grave.
“There’s no reason why they can’t be recovered and sent to museums,” said Fitts, who has written a history of Selma. “I also don’t see any sentimental attachment to them.”
The value of the weapons no doubt would depend on their overall condition, but Fitts said they might not bring much on the open market.
“The true value of those weapons would stem from their role in American history,” he said. “In that regard, they could be worth something, depending on how they are handled.”
Selma was a sleepy little cotton town when the Civil War began. It changed because of its proximity to iron resources and distance from much of the fighting to the north.
Creation of the Selma Ordnance and Naval Foundry changed all of that, and it wasn’t long before more than 10,000 workers began creating weapons of war.
It would rival a similar operation in Richmond, the Confederate capital and a much larger town that produced the same things.
What drove the Selma operation were pig-iron ingots from Alabama blast furnaces — metal that would be turned into the bullets, rifles and mortars that claimed thousands of Yankee lives.
Included in the Union report on weapons destroyed at the Selma Arsenal were a million rounds of small arms ammunition, 60,000 rounds of artillery shells and 15 siege guns.
In addition to rifles and mortars, other destroyed items included 8,000 pounds of horseshoes, five locomotives, 3 million feet of lumber, 10,000 bushels of coal and much more.
“Some things are already on display in museums,” Fitts said. “I just hope that this study will find a way to keep what’s down there from winding up in the hands of those just out to make a profit.”
Bjelke, who couldn’t agree more, likens Selma’s submerged Civil War relics to items recovered from the Titanic.
“Titanic displays are shown around the country, and I’d like to see something like that happen with what we find at the bottom of the Alabama River in Selma,” he said.
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