Archaeologists unearth military history at site of Civil War arsenal

The first of a three-part video history of the Fayetteville Arsenal site.
NC Civil War & Reconstruction History Center

By PAUL WOOLVERTON | The Fayetteville Observer, N.C. | Published: July 30, 2018

FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. (Tribune News Service) — A ceramic shard of a smoking pipe. Melted glass. Nails of various sizes and kind. Screws from more than 150 years ago that look like they could have been purchased at a 21st century hardware store.

And lots and lots of brick, mortar, sandstone and slate.

These are some of the artifacts a team of archaeologists from New South Associates Inc. has found since Monday in an archaeological dig underway on the grounds of Arsenal Park in Fayetteville, the site of the 19th-century Fayetteville Arsenal. The Arsenal, on Arsenal Avenue at the Martin Luther King Jr. Freeway, was a key Confederate Army asset during the Civil War until it was destroyed by the Union army in 1865.

It’s now part of the Museum of the Cape Fear Historical Complex, and in the coming years the North Carolina Civil War & Reconstruction History Center is to be built there.

The archaeological dig continues through Friday afternoon. The New South Associates team is excavating the locations of anomalies found under the surface early this year by ground-penetrating radar. The general public is invited to watch and chat with the scientists as they go about their work.

The scientists are looking for clues about the operations and life in the Fayetteville Arsenal during the war. “What they would have been building in the arsenal,” said C.J. Idol, one of the researchers who is carefully excavating the site for clues. “Even in the demolition of the arsenal there might be some information related to the construction process.”

The Arsenal was built in the mid-1800s by the United States government to make weapons for the American military. The Confederacy took control of it in 1861 for the Civil War and expanded it. It manufactured rifles and other weapons the Confederate army used against Union forces.

Idol and other team members said Union Gen. William T. Sherman in 1865 had his army knock the Arsenal down with battering rams then set it on fire.

In the subsequent century-and-a-half, said Neal Sexton, a freelance archeologist hired for this dig, people scoured the site for building materials and relic-hunters picked up artifacts. This somewhat limits what he can find now.

“Coming in, oh, I had dreams of buttons and bayonets and cannonballs,” Sexton said as he stood hip-deep in the foundation of what is believed to have been a carriage house. “But once I got here, and got boots ‘in-ground,’ so to speak, I started looking at this a lot less like a military site — although it was — and it’s more of an industrial site. It is. It just happened to mass produce munitions and etc.”

The carriage house, Sexton said, made gun carriages — the wheeled apparatus upon which a field cannon was mounted.

Scoops of earth that Sexton pulled from the ground Saturday yielded bits of burnt wood, nails, a manufactured screw, a piece of roofing slate with a nail in it, and brick.

As the researchers dig, subtle things can provide clues about what used to be there, said New South archaeologist James Stewart. A change in the color of the soil or a different sound a shovel makes when it strikes a different type of earth often is a sign, he said.

For example, soil of an altered color was discovered and dug out in the blacksmith shop excavation, he said. This formed three rectangular trenches several feet long. Stewart said he thinks this is where timbers were installed in the floor of the blacksmith shop, and that they were part of a piece of heavy machinery used to make rifles.

The excavation is being assisted by teachers and high school students to give them a taste of what archaeological field work is like.

Fourth grade teacher April Bridges from Shelby is one of the teachers. She said she teaches multiple subjects, and what she learned at the dig she will apply in the classroom.

“I have found that this can fit across every domain,” she said. “Science, social studies — of course, the history of what they’re doing,” Bridges said. It could even help in math instruction, Bridges said, because the archaeological work requires careful measurements.

People who would like to visit the dig can do so from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. The project concludes Friday.

©2018 The Fayetteville Observer (Fayetteville, N.C.)
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