Friday, June 20, 2014

CSS Georgia: Recovery dives may begin in October; precautions made for live ammo

Recovery last fall of CSS Georgia casemate section (USACE)

Possibly as early as this October, divers will begin retrieving objects left behind by the crew of the Confederate ironclad CSS Georgia, which was set afire and scuttled to keep it out of the hands of Union troops closing in on Savannah.

The dive teams will be looking for buttons, accoutrements and other personal belongings that have managed to stay intact for 150 years since the sinking of the CSS Georgia on Dec. 21, 1864.

U.S. Navy divers could start removing larger pieces of the locally-built ironclad – including two casemates, a boiler, cannons and propeller -- as early as February 2015, said Russell Wicke, a spokesman for the Savannah district of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The Corps has recently firmed up its timetable for the removal of the CSS Georgia, the first major project in the long-anticipated deepening of the Savannah River to allow larger vessels to use the port. Its wreckage is close to downtown Savannah, just off Old Fort Jackson.

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

President Barack Obama early last week signed the legislation for the $706 million multiyear deepening of the shipping channel from 42 feet to 47 feet at mean low tide.

The CSS Georgia, resting on a slope about 40 feet deep below the surface of the Savannah River, must be removed so that an additional 5 feet of river bottom can be dredged. With the expansion of the Panama Canal, even larger ships will be able to travel to U.S. cities. That requires deeper channels.

“The Georgia has been down there since 1864 and it can tell us a lot of what occurred in the local area and how it was built, because no blueprints survived,” said Wicke.

Corps officials say they are awaiting final approval from the Office of Management and Budget in order to negotiate contracts for the massive dredging project. "We have no indication that this approval will be long delayed," said Wicke.

One of the previously recovered guns (Courtesy of Old Fort Jackson)

The CSS Georgia was a “one-off local design” rather than one provided by the Confederate navy department, said Bob 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 told the Picket last year. “Even in chunks, and no lower hull, there should be answers.”

Lacking much power, the CSS Georgia was destined to become a stationary floating battery on the river, part of the city’s defense system.

U.S. Navy divers, working with archaeologists for the Corps, which is overseeing the deepening project, retrieved a 64-square-foot section of the ironclad last November. It was sent off for analysis of the railroad iron’s strength and integrity.

“The best sense I have is that the integrity of the casemate isn’t as strong as what they expected it to be,” said Wicke, meaning it may be difficult to bring them up in one piece. Further analysis will continue ahead of the recovery, he said.

A rendering of the CSS Georgia (USACE)

Debris includes four of the CSS Georgia’s original 10 cannons, parts of the propeller and propulsion system, a boiler and the two casemates. The wooden hull is believed to have largely disintegrated over the years.

The signature pieces are the casemates -- the compartments where artillery pieces were housed. 

Experts say they are the only ones surviving from a Confederate ironclad. One is huge: 68 feet by 24 feet.

Wicke said contract and U.S. Navy divers will be involved in the $10 million removal process, which is expected to last three to six months. Conservation of the recovered items could take three years before they are ready for a museum setting.

Divers, using lights on their helmets in the low visibility, will be able to spend up to one hour on the river bottom on either side of the tide, depending on the velocity of the current.

With the chance that surviving cannonballs may be live, even after all these years, explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) specialists will be on hand.

A red buoy marks the wreckage site of the CSS Georgia

“There are several types of ordnance that have been recovered and can be expected to be recovered from the site,” said Wicke. “Based on the most recent investigations, it appears that most of the ordnance, nearly 90 pieces, was recovered in the 1980s. Some ordnance was discovered in October 2013, but it appears that most of it has already been recovered.”

To date, 6.4-inch cone-shaped Brooke shells and 9-inch round Dahlgren shells have been brought up.

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 the shipbuilder's machine business and foundry.

Divers use helmets fitted with lights to see through murky waters (USACE)

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.

Today, much larger vessels cruise the river surface. 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 current shipping channel from Savannah’s port to the Atlantic Ocean past Tybee Island is 32 miles. The deepening project will increase the length to 40 miles, with nearly half of that in the Atlantic, said Wicke.

With the deepening, post-Panamax larger ships won’t have to wait on the tidal windows to approach and leave the port.

Barge used during a recovery dive in 2013 (USACE)

The Corps is working to mitigate side effects from the project, including anticipated lower dissolved oxygen levels that could affect fish and other wildlife in the river, said Wicke. An oxygen injection system is planned along the river. “Ocean water will go further upstream. We have mitigation efforts.”

While there has been concerns raised about the possible environmental impact of the deepening project, Wicke said the plans won approval from four federal agencies and the concerns are unfounded.

He said the project will result in a large economic benefit for Georgia and South Carolina, with $5.5 realized for every dollar spent. Lower costs and increased fuel efficiencies will result for shippers who make fewer trips because they have larger vessels, he said.

The Savannah Corps office is working on CSS Georgia public outreach plans, with possible Boy Scout workshops, a mobile booth about the project, lectures with subject matter experts and public viewing from Old Fort Jackson when larger pieces are brought to the surface.

Officials plan to launch a special website and go heavy on social media, said Wicke.

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