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TMCNet:  150 years later, sunken ship still fascinates

[June 22, 2012]

150 years later, sunken ship still fascinates

Jun 22, 2012 (Star-News - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- More than 100 scholars and Civil War enthusiasts are expected to gather Tuesday at the University of North Carolina Wilmington for a symposium on one of the Lower Cape Fear's most famous shipwrecks.

The symposium marks the 150th anniversary of the sinking of the blockade runner Modern Greece off Fort Fisher in 1862 and the 50th anniversary of its first excavation in 1962 by U.S. Navy divers.

The Tuesday event is already a sellout, said Chris Fonvielle, associate professor of history at UNCW and one of the symposium's organizers. UNCW Media Productions is working to arrange a live feed of the sessions online.

Members of the public, meanwhile, are invited to an open house at the state of North Carolina's Underwater Archaeology Branch, 10 a.m. to noon and 1 to 4 p,m. Wednesday at the branch's facilities, next to the Fort Fisher State Historic Site off U.S. 421 south of Kure Beach.

Guided tours will offer a look at rifles, hand tools and other pieces of cargo recovered from the Modern Greece. Visitors will also see the artifact conservation lab and new storage tanks made possible by the N.C. Preservation Consortium said Mark Wilde-Ramsing, deputy state archaeologist, who heads the branch.

A panel of experts will be on hand at the nearby Fort Fisher State Historic Site to answer visitors' questions, Wilde-Ramsing said. In addition, a videographer from the state will record first-person stories from divers and others who recall work on the Modern Greece in the 1960s.

At noon Wednesday, state Cultural Resources Secretary Linda Carlisle, Kure Beach Mayor Dean Lambeth and other officials will unveil a new sign commemorating the Modern Greece at the northern, ocean-side gazebo at Fort Fisher.

A 210-foot-long, 520-ton steam freighter, the Modern Greece ran aground in the surf off Fort Fisher before dawn on June 27, 1862, while trying to evade U.S. Navy vessels. The British-built vessel had been bound for Wilmington with a cargo of Whitworth cannon, Enfield rifle-muskets, bayonets, bullets, hand tools, cutlery, medicine and other items meant for Confederate forces in the American Civil War.

Much of the Modern Greece's cargo was salvaged in the days and weeks after the wreck, Fonvielle said. Eventually, the vessel slipped beneath the sands, its location known only to a few local mariners.

In 1962, U.S. Navy divers rediscovered the wreck, which had been uncovered by storms. A major recovery operation yielded more than 11,500 artifacts and helped lead to the founding of North Carolina's underwater archaeology program.

Former UNCW Chancellor James Leutze, a military historian, will chair the symposium in the Azalea Coast Room at the Fisher University Union.

Speakers will include Stephen R. Wise of the Parris Island Museum, author of "Lifeline of the Confederacy" and an authority on blockade running; Robert M. Browning Jr., chief historian of the U.S. Coast Guard and an authority on the Union blockade; Kevin Foster, former chief of the Marine Heritage Program with the National Park Service; and Gordon P. Watts Jr., former co-director of the underwater archaeology program at East Carolina University.

Among other guests, Fonvielle said, will be Andrew "Punky" Kure of Kure Beach, one of the first divers to explore the Modern Greece site, and Leslie Bright, a longtime artifact conservator with the underwater archaeology lab at Fort Fisher.

Fonvielle said organizers hope to raise enough money from the event to underwrite a documentary film about the Modern Greece and its excavation.

Ben Steelman: 343-2208 ___ (c)2012 the Star-News (Wilmington, N.C.) Visit the Star-News (Wilmington, N.C.) at www.starnewsonline.com Distributed by MCT Information Services

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