By Ian Crook
(The original text of this article appeared as "The Lasting Legacy Of The Blockade Runner 'Modern Greece'" in 'Crossfire' the magazine of the ACWRT (UK) No. 48)
The enemy are shelling her. We have sunk her to wet the powder and prevent an explosion. Have sent down steamers to aid and push to save some of the cargo. She is three-quarters of a mile from shore, which prevents us keeping the enemy's vessels far enough off to prevent their shelling her."
So wrote Confederate Brigadier General S.G. French at Wilmington following the vessel's grounding in the early hours of June 27th, 1862.
The freighter, built at Pearson's yard in Stockton, was originally for the Hull to Baltic timber trade, but had been purchased that year, three years after construction, by the one-time Mayor of Hull, Zacharia C. Pearson.
Pearson it was who had scented the potential profits to British business via successful blockade running ventures. He had set up the London registered company of Z.C. Pearson & Co. and was actively engaged in the trade through the Bermuda based 'middle man', John T. Bourne.
The 'Modern Greece' was only marginally suitable for blockade running. With a depth of 17 feet 2 inches allied to her length and breadth of 210 and 29 feet respectively, she was a large vessel for a pursuit. No doubt with profit as its prime motive, Pearson was attracted to the vessel's capacity of 753 tons though, and with speculative gains of over 100 per cent from a successful round trip, Pearson and his cohorts presumably relished the anticipated good news. On May 16th 1862, the U.S. Consul at Falmouth reported "...the departure of the 'Modern Greece' from that port on the 2nd ultimo with a cargo, it is suspected, for the rebels." Bound ostensibly for the Mexican port of Tampico, the 'Modern Greece', camouflaged in a slate grey paint, undertook the most hazardous part of its mission as dawn broke off the North Carolina coastline amidst the hazy first hours of June 27th 1862.
Approaching New Inlet that murky morn, she was spotted by two U.S. patrolling ships, the U.S.S. 'Stars & Stripes' and the U.S.S. 'Cambridge', which immediately opened fire with its parrott gun. The 'Modern Greece' responded in the only way she could, by hoisting the British flag and making full steam ahead for the protection of Fort Fisher's guns by running parallel to shore. Initially, this plan succeeded but about half a mile from the Fort, the steamer ran hard aground whilst under heavy Yankee fire.
Orders were given to abandon ship and this the British crew did. The 'Cambridge' continued firing upon the
stricken vessel for several hours afterwards - ceasing to enable her jubilant crew to breakfast - until a total of 106 rounds had been fired. This shelling effectively sunk the 'Modern Greece', and by August 17th her spar deck was level with the waterline, with only smokestacks and masts still standing. Her hull, it was noted, had already settled into the sandy seabed.
The resourceful Confederates, however, were eager to salvage everything possible from the cargo and had soon begun an extensive operation to recover munitions and supplies from the vessel's holds.
Official reports from both sides survive today detailing the types of cargo saved, the non-military part of which was auctioned, as 'The Wilmington Journal' of June 30th, 1862 records: "We understand a large proportion of the cargo of the Modern Greece advertised for sale at auction 8th inst. is in a damaged condition, and we are requested to say catalogues of that saved in good order will be prepared as soon as the ship is discharged, and the quantity ascertained."
Following the sale of all salvaged non-military goods from the 'Modern Greece' her usable military artefacts, including engines, rifled cannon, Enfield muskets and some powder, the ship passed into history, or so it seemed.
The vessel's location, covered in sand around thirty feet down, had been passed down the generations until, in early spring 1962, a fierce storm ravaged the North Carolina coast. The high winds and water managed to uncover the sand from the wreck and shortly after divers from the Naval Ordnance School in Maryland inspected the ship's remains. Their prognosis was encouraging, stating that the hull had been cleared of sand to below the main deck and that the cargo was virtually intact.
Several U.S. departments soon became involved and navy divers began to salvage this cargo from the wreck, commencing on March 15th off a rented shrimp boat 'Wayne R'. Seventeen Enfield rifles, 3 Whitworth shells, a triangular bayonet, several sabre bayonets and a ship's anchor were recovered in the first three days of diving, just a taster of what lay ahead.
Now, thanks to the intervention of the US Coastguard, artefacts were being retrieved daily, including lead for shot, hardware of all description, housewares, surgical goods and instruments, tin, steel sheet, wire, plus military goods.
Preservation of these historically important artefacts was entrusted to the Fort Fisher Preservation Laboratory, located on the Fort Fisher Historical Site. To date, fifty-five different methods of preservation have been used and the large number of duplicate artefacts allows for the testing of the best preservation method. Cleaning, impregnation, freeze drying, electrochemical reduction, electrolytic reduction, sandblasting, plastic embedding and sonic cleaning all have to be done before an artefact is ready for display at the state of North Carolina's official museum site.
During this work, several Liverpool manufacturers' marks have been discovered, including the Coopers Row and King Street copper and load manufacturer Newton Keates & Co and Newton Lyon & Co.
Over 130 years since her assumed end, the 'Modern Greece' is once again playing a part in history, this time in a far more peaceful role.
© ACWRT(UK) 2001
Image of Fort Fisher © North Carolina Division of Archives and History. All rights reserved.