Thursday, November 21, 2013

Mysteries of the deep: Upcoming raising of ironclad CSS Georgia excites researchers

Possible photo of CSS Georgia (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

The only presumed photo of the Confederate ironclad CSS Georgia is actually a photo of a photo.

The grainy and chemical-blistered image, with a man in the foreground, was spotted and photographed a couple decades ago at a yard sale in Waycross, Ga.

“We agreed that it is a legitimate original photograph of the Georgia,” said Bob Holcombe, a naval historian.

Experts determined this by comparing the copy to sketches in Harper’s Weekly and by the process of elimination involving known designs of other ironclads in and around Savannah, Ga.

No one knows what became of that yard sale photograph. Was it purchased and put away in a trunk?

That’s just one of many mysteries associated with the CSS Georgia. (See bizarre update on photograph here)

Some of those mysteries may be solved when piece by piece, the remnants of the Civil War ironclad will break the surface of the Savannah River next summer, destined for conservation and, one day, display at a museum.

The CSS Georgia must be moved as part of a $652 million project benefiting the Port of Savannah. With the expansion of the Panama Canal, even larger ships will be able to travel to U.S. cities. That requires deeper channels.

While the CSS Georgia is not currently in the shipping lane, it must be raised by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers so that vessels will have more room to maneuver as they make their way to and from the Atlantic Ocean.

A rare opportunity to learn shipbuilding methods

Archaeologists and historians are thrilled because they finally will have the opportunity to learn more about the ironclad’s design and construction and its two casemates. There are no known surviving plans.

The CSS Georgia was a “one-off local design” rather than one provided by the Confederate navy department, said Holcombe, retired curator and historian at the National Civil War Naval Museum in Columbus, Ga. “The dimension of the vessels are not known with any degree of certainty.”

“We know so little about the vessel itself so there will be a lot of answers to how it was built,” Holcombe recently told the Picket.  “Even in chunks, and no lower hull, there should be answers.”

Recent recovery of casemate section (USACE)
The banging of war drums before the first shots were fired on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor ushered the beginning of a whirlwind of activity for Alvin N. Miller’s machine and shipbuilding business in Savannah.

Miller and other business near River Street and on Hutchinson Island produced ships, parts and tools for the young Confederate navy.

High on their mind was ensuring Savannah’s strategic importance as a port. But the fall of Fort Pulaski -- also on the Savannah River, east of the city – to Union forces in early 1862 effectively bottled up the city. Attention now swung toward producing ironclads that might break through the blockade or protect Savannah from approaches by water.

Miller’s crowning achievement during the war, according to a paper at Armstrong Atlantic State University, was the building of the ironclad CSS Georgia in 1862.

“Miller designed and built the Georgia – thus making it his largest work for the Confederacy,” said the authors.

The Ladies’ Gunboat Association raised money across the state for the building of the CSS Georgia, reaching about $115,000.

Layers of wood supported the iron armor
Despite the dreams of a powerful ship, it soon became apparent that the CSS Georgia’s engine and propulsion system weren’t up to the task of nimbly slicing through the swift currents of the Savannah River and engaging in offensive action against elite Union vessels.

So she become a floating battery, a deterrent that never fired a shot in anger but helped keep the Federal navy away from the city.

Letters to the editor in local newspapers alternately denigrated and defended the CSS Georgia.

“They wanted something like the [CSS] Virginia,” said Michael Jordan, a Savannah filmmaker and student of the Civil War, said of the comparison to the Confederate vessel that clashed with the USS Monitor. “It is just murky what the builders intended. There are no surviving plans.”

The CSS Georgia was part of the so-called Savannah Squadron, which included the ironclads Atlanta, Savannah and Milledgeville.

Hours before the massive army of Major Gen. William T. Sherman took Savannah by land, the CSS Georgia’s crew lit a charge, creating an explosion and fire that sent the ironclad down nearly 40 feet deep, just a couple hundred yards from Fort Jackson, which itself is only a few miles east of River Street.

Confederates, before they fled, also burned the eastern wharves district, putting an end to Miller’s machine business and foundry.

Beyond the salvage of a few items, the CSS Georgia was largely forgotten until 1968, when a dredge struck the vessel. A similar incident occurred in 1983, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers placed a buoy above the wreckage and set about protecting the site and warning huge commercial vessels using the main shipping channel to steer clear.

Views of the CSS Georgia (USACE)
The new “super ships” resulting from the Panama Canal expansion will be 1,000 feet long or larger. 

They would dwarf the CSS Georgia, which is estimated to have been between 150 and 250 feet long and 45-60 feet wide.

The raising of the CSS Georgia -- with an estimate price tag of nearly $10 million -- was just a matter of time in recent years, and the funding for Savannah’s port expansion finally has enabled the Corps to construct a rough timeline for the archaeological effort, which will require Navy divers, using lights on their helmet, to work in extremely low visibility.

“You also are limited to diving around high or low tide,” said Julie Morgan, Army Corps archaeologist in Savannah. “The current is really fast through the Savannah River.”

Navy divers doing an assessment of the integrity of the CSS Georgia’s remains recently brought up a 5,000-pound piece of the wreckage. It has been sent to Texas A&M University so that researchers can study how to best bring up the vessel.

The debris includes possibly four out of her original 10 cannons, parts of the propeller and propulsion system, a boiler and casemate. The wooden hull is believed to have largely disintegrated over the years.

Riveted by design, building of casemates

Officials say the signature pieces are two casemates -- the compartments where artillery pieces were housed. Experts say the casemates are the only ones surviving from a Confederate ironclad. One is huge: 68 feet by 24 feet.

One of the recovered guns (Courtesy of Old Fort Jackson)
“We have one large section, the east casemate. She was clad in railroad iron,” said Morgan. “In 2003, the divers noted a lot of wood backing that was still attached to the iron. [But] there may have been deterioration over the years.”

The CSS Georgia was believed to have about 24 inches of pine and oak beneath her iron cladding. Historians and archaeologists are eager to see how all of that was held together.

Rods connected the iron and the wood.

“It went through there like a Tinker Toy,” said Jordan, who wrote a thesis about the CSS Georgia and has made several productions about the city and the Civil War.

The engine used by the ironclad likely came from another ship, according to Morgan.

Morgan said crews, utilizing barges and cranes, may have to cut some pieces to safely bring them to the surface.

And there’s a possibility of live munitions, even after 150 years.

“We know the cannon are there and don’t know if they were loaded,” Morgan told the Picket. Some ordnance was recovered in the 1980s; two artillery pieces are on display at Old Fort Jackson.

Shackles, shot and tools were recovered in dives during the 1980s, but officials don’t expect to find a trove of personal artifacts this time around.

Although wood associated with the CSS Georgia may be questionable, the iron is believed to be in good shape.

A sign at Old Fort Jackson, close to the shipwreck site.
“We know that we have an invasive species of mussels. It just coats the wreck, like shag carpet. It doesn’t seem to be harming it,” said Morgan.

The wreckage, over a field of about 300 feet by 150 feet, straddles the South Carolina-Georgia line.

“I think it probably settled very near its present location,” said the archaeologist. But because the CSS Georgia has been hit at least twice during routine dredge operations, “the arrangement of the artifacts are not [arranged] the way it went down in 1864.”

Divers expect to spend six to eight months raising the CSS Georgia, but the conservation of the ironclad will take longer, probably three to five years.

That is a considerably shorter window than the conservation of the CSS Hunley, the famed Confederate submarine that sank a Union ship off Charleston, S.C.

The Georgia is not as “concreted” as the Hunley and the Savannah River’s salinity is not as high as the Atlantic Ocean’s, according to Morgan.

Concretion, a mix of iron corrosion and carbonates from seawater, actually protects such shipwrecks from rapid deterioration.

The CSS Georgia was a member of the Savannah Squadron, a half dozen vessels intended to conduct offensive and defensive operations.

Divers must use lights to see wreckage (USACE)
The CSS Atlanta saw action near Wassaw Sound before it ran ashore. It was captured and subsequently used by the Union navy.

The CSS Savannah and CSS Milledgeville, the latter still under construction, were scuttled on Dec. 21, 1864, the same day the CSS Georgia was destroyed to keep it from falling into Union hands.

While there were some salvage operations on the CSS Georgia immediately after the war, she proved too difficult to move. “It was a difficult project with very limited success,” said Morgan.

“We have no indication in the harbor of the [other] ironclads. They were probably removed earlier to clear the waterway.”

Holcombe said the CSS Georgia was built of T-shaped railroad iron, before rolling mills were set up. “They would put a layer down on the wood.”

The CSS Georgia’s iron might not have held up to the 15-inch guns used by some Union monitors, but it would have done well against others, said Holcombe.

That’s if she had been capable of plying the rivers and coastal waterways.

Serving on CSS Georgia was no picnic

There was not much excitement to serving aboard a floating battery. Morale often was a problem because of the lack of combat.

“I think people hated serving on it. It was hot and dull,” said Jordan. He cited leakage, darkness and ventilation on the CSS Georgia.

There was one moment of excitement for the crew in June 1864. They took part in a successful raid that resulted in the capture of the USS Water Witch in Ossabaw Sound.

Still, beyond a couple of rosters, little is known about the 200-300 sailors that served the CSS Georgia. Holcombe said he is not aware of any letters or journals.

Their numbers included immigrants and a few African-Americans.

Another rendering of the Georgia (USACE)
“By all accounts, they were well-trained and efficient,” said Holcombe. “They were basically Georgia farm boys.”

Malaria and heat-related problems were among the afflictions.

“It was not pleasant duty and probably most of the people aboard would rather have been somewhere else,” said Holcombe. “There was a lot of disease on the station.”

The retired curator said he is fascinated by the construction of the CSS Georgia. And while the ironclad did not live up to expectations upon its launching, Holcombe marvels at an innovative design brought to production by unskilled labor in a largely agrarian society.

“The South was able to produce a modern system of war in a very short time.”

COMING SOON: Ideas for public outreach on CSS Georgia and possible exhibiting.

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