British cannon revolutionary war savannah river
Commodore Philip Nash, left, of the British Royal Navy, gets a briefing from U.S. Army Corps of Engineers archaeologist Andrea Farmer on Thursday, April 28, 2022, in Savannah, Ga., about 19 cannons recovered from the Savannah River, that experts suspect came from one or more British ships scuttled in the river during the American Revolution in 1779. (AP Photo/Russ Bynum)
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By Russ Bynum, AP

A warehouse along the Savannah River is holding historical treasures that evidence suggests remained lost for more than 240 years — a cache of 19 cannons that researchers suspect came from British ships scuttled to the river bottom during the American Revolution.

The mud- and rust-encrusted guns were discovered by accident. A dredge scooping sediment from the riverbed last year as part of a $973 million deepening of Savannah’s busy shipping channel surfaced with one the cannons clasped in its metal jaws. The crew soon dug up two more.

Archaeologists guessed they were possibly leftover relics from a sunken Confederate gunship excavated a few years earlier in the same area, said Andrea Farmer, an archaeologist for the Army Corps of Engineers. But experts for the U.S. Navy found they didn’t match any known cannons used in the Civil War. Further research indicates they’re likely almost a century older and sank during the buildup to the Revolutionary War’s bloody siege of Savannah in 1779.

In a timeframe of just over a year, 19 cannons were hoisted from the same area of the river a few miles downstream from Savannah, where Georgia was founded as the last of Britain’s 13 American colonies in 1733.

“They’re in remarkably good shape,” Farmer said. “Many were buried in clay and covered by silt and debris that kind of protected them.”

Now officials with the U.S. and British governments, as well as the state of Georgia, are working together on an agreement to preserve the newly found guns before putting them on display. Commodore Philip Nash of the British Royal Navy, a military attache based in Washington, viewed the artifacts submerged in metal tubs of water during a visit Thursday.

“Some of these pieces are in amazing condition and I’m sure could tell some stories,” Nash said.

British cannon revolutionary war savannah river
A cannon encrusted in rust and mud sits inside a warehouse operated by the Army Corps of Engineers in Savannah, Ga., on Thursday, April 28, 2022. It’s one of 19 cannons discovered in the Savannah River since last year that experts believe date to the American Revolution, when British ships were scuttled in the river to block colonists’ allies from reaching Savannah by ship.(AP Photo/Russ Bynum)

The cannons are being kept in water to prevent further deterioration until experts can carefully clean them. Meanwhile, researchers are looking for more definitive proof linking the cannons to British ships from the American Revolution.

Farmer said researchers are very confident of the connection. Savannah had been under British occupation for about a year by the fall of 1779, when colonists planned an attack to retake the city with help from French and Haitian allies.

When French ships carrying troops were spotted off the Georgia coast, the British hurried to scuttle at least six ships in the Savannah River downstream from the city to block the French vessels. The land battle that followed was one of the bloodiest of the war. British forces killed nearly 300 colonial fighters and their allies, while wounding hundreds more.

Farmer said researchers suspect the cannons found in the river came from the British ship HMS Savannah and possibly a second ship scuttled at the same time, the HMS Venus. The longer guns appear to match cannons manufactured in France during the mid-1700s, she said. Researchers are looking for ship logs and manifests in hopes of confirming the armaments aboard those ships.

It’s also possible the cannons themselves and other artifacts found at the site — pieces of anchors and a portion of a ship’s bell — once cleaned might bear markings or other clues to which ship they belonged to. The wood from those ships, Farmer said, decayed long ago or got destroyed by prior dredging projects over a series of decades.

The question of who owns the artifacts gets a little murky. They were found in state waters of Georgia during a dredging project headed by the Army Corps, a U.S. government agency. The British government could make an ownership claim if there’s strong evidence the artifacts came from British ships.

Farmer said all of those parties are working on an agreement to preserve the cannons and ultimately have them displayed at the Savannah History Museum, which incorporates the battlefield where the bloodiest fighting occurred during the 1779 siege.

“Everybody wants to keep the artifacts in Savannah,” Farmer said, “because that makes the most sense.”

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  1. Savannah is a really nice town. Especially if you like history. I was stationed at Hunter for about three years. Took my bride there for our honeymoon five years later. Pretty much the way I remembered it. When I retired in 14 I went back for a week. Still nice, but wow! Spanky’s was still on River Street and the historic district is still great. I always liked the idea of calling the militia to the squares. Still worth a visit. Just a little faster than I remember.

    • I was up there with my sister and her kid a few years back. They wanted to do the ‘haunted tour’, and it was kinda interesting.

      Florida doesn’t have that kind of history in their buildings. Savanna did it right, on the town square, buildings that you can see into on the first floor are required to have period-correct furniture in them, and it really adds to the illusion you’re walking down a sidewalk in downtown Savannah in the 1700s. Down by the river, it’s paved with ballast stones from the European ships that stopped in the city…

        • It really is neat, especially at night, downtown historical district…

        • I’m a little confused. The Savannah River is located squarely on American soil (so to speak). The UK is somehow being brought in for an “agreement” for possession display? Must be a courtesy…they certainly can’t have any claim.

        • “The UK is somehow being brought in for an “agreement” for possession display?”

          I don’t see they have a case, Haz.

          It was the 1779 siege of Savannah, and they are clearly ‘spoils of war’…

      • Geoff, “Florida doesn’t have that kind of history.” Ever heard of St. Augustine? Only the oldest European settlement in North America. Does Ponce de Leon ring a bell? The De Soto Trail? The first cattle ranches in North America were established in Florida. Apologies to my friends in Texas. We probably still turn it as many ribeyes as oranges. Orlando and Ocala were wild cattle towns. As a child I remember going to Six Gun Territory in Ocala. That place would send the left into a flaming tailspin today. Geoff, I’ve found petrified mastadon teeth diving in the St. Marks river. Florida has all the history you can stand. Reach out to me when you have a week. I’ll show you a bit of Old Florida. Before it’s gone.

        • “Ever heard of St. Augustine? Only the oldest European settlement in North America.”

          Details. Always those pesky details. 🙂

          I should have said, in any appreciable quantity. Cities like Atlanta and Savannah have buildings people are living in to this day over 200 hundred years old.

          The great European cities like Salzburg, Austria, and Paris, France have buildings over one *thousand* years old still in use as homes.

          On my bucket list, I’d like to walk Roman roads, some of them two *thousand* years old…

        • Geoff, I understand. I love history. Just a little poke. Enjoy your comments.

    • It’s a shame they are rotted out with rust. Would have been really neat if they were naval bronze.

      It makes me wonder though, why weren’t they salvaged at the end of the war? Cannon like that were serious money in the 1770s.

      Did they rust so fast it wasn’t worth it to drag them out?

      • I’m surprised the ships were scuttled with the guns still aboard. In that age the guns were worth more than the ships. They should have landed the guns and mounted them as land defenses.

        Why the Americans didn’t go after them? Maybe they did not know they were there?

        • “Why the Americans didn’t go after them? Maybe they did not know they were there?”

          A warship bristling with cannon is a hard thing to miss in an age like that.

          That has piqued my curiosity, though…

      • I wouldn’t be so sure that the Confederates didn’t use them or had planned to use them. If you have cannons and cannonballs or scrap iron, all you need is powder and knowledge. When Sherman was approaching, it was probably mass chaos.

        • Tickman, Sherman was met before he reached Savannah and it was surrendered before he could burn it. I believe Sherman telegraphed Lincoln with the Christmas news that he presented Lincoln with Savannah as a gift. Every Southerner spits when Sherman’s name is mentioned. You have to get the taste out of your mouth.

        • I have a story for you, told by my ex as she says a prior boss told her. This boss was based in Cincinnati and stayed up all night preparing for a convention in Savannah, I think … drove straight through, a bit heavy footed. Got pulled over by a Georgia state trooper. He began with “Missy, nobody drives through Georgia that fast”, and she responded with the one thing guaranteed to generate a ticket: “Sherman did”.

        • “He began with “Missy, nobody drives through Georgia that fast”, and she responded with the one thing guaranteed to generate a ticket: “Sherman did”.”

          *BURN*… 🙂

      • Geoff, “dig them out?” The Savannah River is deep and swift there. Really swift. I wouldn’t dive it myself. I doubt they had the salvage technology in that day. Those cannons might as well have been on the moon.

        • “The Savannah River is deep and swift there. Really swift.”

          They could have constructed a large raft and had it tied up on opposite banks. So, there’s your (mostly) stationary work platform.

          Diving bells are something like the 1600s technology.
          So, the technology was there at the time to do it.

          So, why didn’t they?

  2. Meh, let them keep them, as a reminder they got their tea swilling butts handed to them by a bunch of farmers…

    • Makes our cases that much stronger in court being able to quote actual precedence…some day in the future.

  3. Thank God for the Founding Fathers and Patriots. If it was not for them, we would be saying God Save the King instead of God Bless America!

  4. So, the Brits have almost a 250 year old habit of dumping arms into the water. At least in this instance we hadn’t loaned them to help repel an invading enemy. We won’t get fooled again….

  5. The British government has no valid claim. War prizes belonging to the USA if they’re British guns. If the cannon were found in international waters- then they’d have a claim.

    • Ehhhh…toss them the worst one of the 19 and et them put it on display in the UK as another reminder that we kicked their ass.

  6. I wonder how Princess Albert Hall-less will address his country’s loss of scary black gunz? Some long-winded diatribe about how the USA is not worthy because of our earned freedoms compared to his serfdom.

  7. Geoff, you ever seen that river at that location? It’s no joke. I’ve had to dive for bodies and evidence with modern diving gear. No way I’m going into the Savannah River along that stretch. The body will bob to the top in three days. The evidence is just gone. A raft and diving bells? You jest. Even if you could find the cannon you have raise them. The English scuttled those ships to block the port because they knew they couldn’t be cleared. At least in that time. Oh, I’ve been following this story since the cannon were discovered. Savannah interests me.

    • I found myself enjoying the trip a lot more than I was expecting.

      I just might take you up on the offer, years back I worked in the phosphate mining biz processing core samples. “Prospecting” they called it. When washing the cores over screens, I found a number of nice shark teeth I saved…

    • Cannon for fishing?

      Better than a stick of dynamite for making them float to the top? 😉


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