Friday, April 7, 2017

CSS Georgia: No home yet for artifacts, but Texas City exhibit may provide inspiration

Dahlgren and carriage reproduction at Texas City Museum (Photo Texas A&M)
USS Westfield exhibit in Texas City. (Clifford Davis/US Navy)

Dr. Robert Neyland can picture it: A large exhibit hall featuring sections of armor that once encased the CSS Georgia, a floating battery used to defend Savannah, Ga., during the Civil War.

Several of the ironclad’s artillery pieces, including 9-inch Dahlgrens, jut through reconstructed portholes. Nearby display cases include pieces of the ship’s equipment and personal artifacts, all telling the story of how the Confederacy tried to create a worthy navy in a very short time.

So far, as thousands of CSS Georgia artifacts begin to emerge from conservation in Texas, there’s only a vision. No museums have committed to exhibit and care for large remnants of the vessel, which was scuttled in December 1864 as Federal forces neared the port city.

“Somebody needs to have the means, influence, funding and take the lead,” said Neyland, head of the Underwater Archaeology Branch of the Naval History and Heritage Command. The CSS Georgia belongs to the Navy.

Officials say it is appropriate that key elements of the ironclad be exhibited in Georgia or, if not there, South Carolina.

Neyland said he is working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers -- which is removing the CSS Georgia as part of a harbor deepening project and is having items conserved at Texas A&M University -- and others to find a suitable spot.

“That is more preferable than sitting in a Navy warehouse in storage,” he said.

CSS Georgia sword hilt (USACE)
And that’s what will happen if no home is found. CSS Georgia artifacts will be shipped to the Washington Navy Yard, where they will be curated and stored – out of the public eye, with no opportunity to tell the story of an ironclad utilizing casemate made – of all things – from railroad iron.

But there may be a plan on the horizon. A project manager at Texas A&M’s Center for Maritime Archaeology and Conservation is devising a proposal for an affordable display of the CSS Georgia at a possible partner location.

Justin Parkoff is using his experience in building such an exhibit for a city-owned museum in Texas City, Texas. The university and students reconstructed parts of the USS Westfield, a Federal gunboat that churned the waters in nearby Galveston Bay during a blockade before it ran aground in early 1863 and was destroyed by its crew.

Such an idea can be a win-win, officials say. Students learn and a city or museum put up less money to get the ball rolling.

USS Westfield remnants (Courtesy of Texas A&M)

Like the CSS Georgia, the recovery of the remains of the USS Westfield was a salvage operation led by the Corps during improvements in a shipping channel. But the CSS Georgia is in better shape. While it suffered damage decades ago during dredging and from previous salvage attempts, the USS Westfield went down in a massive explosion, reducing much of it to pieces.

“Thousands of disarticulated fragments … would be difficult to present to the general public," Parkoff  wrote of the USS Westfield for the Institute of Nautical Archaeology. “This difficultly inevitably turned many museums away.”

Texas A&M found a solution for items brought up in 2009: A display could tell the story of the ship -- through personal and ship artifacts and a reconstructed engine cylinder, boiler and a bearing block that supported the engine. Texas City accepted the idea and work formally began. The exhibit opened just last month.

Parkoff, who specializes in steam machinery, is drafting the proposal for the Navy.

“If they have a facility that can house this, my proposal is we reconstruct a large section of the casemate and put the cannons on display under the casemate, on reconstructed carriages,” he said.

No commitments yet for CSS Georgia

CSS Georgia armor (USACE)
The Savannah District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, using Navy and contract divers, brought up much of the CSS Georgia’s remains in 2015. A variety of recovery techniques were used: Hand, rigging, clamshell and grapple. Divers this summer will be back on the site, working to remove 160 tons of the ironclad’s protective casemate from the Savannah River.

What’s left of the wreckage is close to downtown Savannah, just off Old Fort Jackson. The fort is operated by the Coastal Heritage Society, a nonprofit that uses museums to preserve and present cultural resources in the area.

Cannon, cannonballs and other items recovered previously from the CSS Georgia have long been displayed at Old Fort Jackson.

Coastal Heritage Society has served as voluntary stewards of the CSS Georgia story for over 40 years and was actively involved during that time in efforts to understand and preserve the sunken remains,” spokeswoman Holly Elliott told the Picket.

But opening new exhibits and caring for items is not cheap. What about this larger collection of casemate, guns, personal items, a propeller and machinery parts?

Since the Georgia was moved in 2015, Coastal Heritage Society has had discussions with the US Navy about the possibilities of having the remainder of the Georgia items, now undergoing conservation, returned to Savannah and housed at Savannah History Museum," Elliott said in a statement. "Housing and displaying these items will require significant commitment of space and funds. These factors along with many others must be considered to determine whether this collection is right for Savannah History Museum and whether our museum is the best fit for these items long-term."

Artist's conception of the CSS Georgia (USACE)

Corps and Navy officials said another option is in North Charleston, S.C., where remains of the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley are being conserved at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center.

Given reports that plans for a permanent museum for the Hunley itself are slow to move forward, such a scenario does not seem to be a priority.

Kellen Correia, president and executive director of the Friends of the Hunley, said the CSS Georgia might be considered at some point.

Currently, all we have considered besides the Hunley and correlating artifacts for display in the future museum are artifacts from the maritime collection that is owned by the state,” Correia said. “The extensive collection has thousands of items from Union and Confederate (sources). We have not narrowed down what all would be finally displayed.”

Another possibility is the National Civil War Naval Museum in Columbus, Ga.

“We are in process of negotiations with the right people with the US Navy,” said Jeff Seymour, director of history and education. “However, the process of recovery and conservation is much bigger than expected. The Navy has made no decisions as to the final disposition of the vessel or its artifacts. I've been in regular contact  with … Texas A&M for updates. They are returning this summer and are expecting to recover another 100 tons of material off the riverbed. It still may be two, maybe three years, before we can get a decision from the Navy.”

Scuttled ironclad had a unique history, design

Belt buckle recovered from CSS Georgia (USACE)

In College Station, Texas, the pipeline of conserved artifacts is at full throttle: A 6-pounder artillery piece was recently completed. One of two propellers used for the underpowered ironclad has been painted.

So far, about 3,600 items have been conserved, including fuses, gun sights, brass sabots, artillery shells, and bayonet and sword handles, said Conservation Research Laboratory project manager Jim Jobling. (Conservation of thousands of additional artifacts will take up to four more years).

One of the Dahlgren cannons appears to have something at the back of barrel, possible evidence that the crew sabotaged the piece before the CSS Georgia’s engine was cut off. With pumps no longer in operation, water slowly filled the vessel and it sank.

There are thousands of pieces of ceramics and glass -- some modern, many prehistoric Native American. Those will not go to the Navy Yard.

Julie Morgan, an archaeologist with the Army Corps of Engineers in Savannah, said many pieces may have belonged to Woodland or Mississippian tribes.

“We are pretty certain that the wreckage of the CSS Georgia acted as a catch mitt, an object these artifacts got caught on as they were being swept through the river,” Morgan told the Picket.

CSS Georgia machinery (USACE)
There’s a strong possibility some ship pieces in the CSS Georgia site are from other vessels. And, officials say, the builders of the ironclad may have “borrowed” components from other vessels. “The South did not have the same technological advances, specialized metallurgy” as the Union, Morgan said.

Very little is known of the vessel’s size and design and there is a debate over whether a photograph of the CSS Georgia survives. Divers recovered a section that might give some clues on how the hull was fastened. “The west casemate has a lot of potential,” Morgan said.

Neyland said an exhibit could impress patrons by its sheer size alone: A 20-foot tall side of the CSS Georgia.

“You have got this casemate made from railroad iron. It is quite impressive and quite unique. It doesn’t look very pretty being brought up,” he said, referencing chunks of iron and wood remnants brought to the surface.

Neyland said he believes the CSS Georgia is the only raised Confederate vessel with armor. Officials want to learn more about the builder and the engine and propulsion system, which weren’t strong enough to allow the ship to go to sea.

He recounted the story of the CSS Virginia and Monitor, which did not do much damage to each other during the 1862 Battle of Hampton Roads. The CSS Georgia’s railroad iron and deep layers of wood backing “would have been effective at bouncing off cannonballs.”

Alas, the ironclad never saw any action. That led to boredom and discipline issues. “The crew must have seen horrible conditions inside this ship,” Neyland said. “We know they had problems with desertion. We had leg irons in the ship.”

The CSS Georgia was probably close to two stories tall at the water line, Parkoff said. Exhibit designers should be able to figure out the angle of the casemates and the position of the top catwalk and boat davits.

“You could do a generalized reconstruction, which could be pretty accurate,” he said.

In Texas City, exhibit is a ‘perfect marriage’

(Photos courtesy of Texas City Museum)

Dennis Harris heads up Texas City’s parks, recreation and tourism. The city of 46,000 is best known as a petrochemical port between Houston and Galveston. Harris said the community has “big city amenities” and is a popular fishing tournament destination.

The Texas City Museum’s marquee exhibit is on the 1947 disaster, an industrial accident that killed nearly 600 people as ships exploded in succession.

The recovery of the USS Westfield -- a flagship converted from a Staten Island ferryboat -- in the Texas City shipping channel during a dredging operation brought a new opportunity.
“Our mayor and city leaders really showed an interest,” said Harris.

Drawings of the USS Westfield and its explosion

The USS Westfield ran aground on Jan. 1, 1863, during the Battle of Galveston, which ended in Rebel control of the port. Commodore William Renshaw didn’t want it to fall into Rebel hands. Renshaw and 12 of his men were killed during the detonation of the forward powder magazine.

Before Texas City signed on, the university approached a dozen Texas museums, hoping the collection could stay together. “Nobody had an interest. They just wanted small personal artifacts, like belt buckles” and rotating exhibits, Parkoff said.

But once they saw scale models and heard the pitch, officials in Texas City got on board. A 9-inch smoothbore Dahlgren gun arrived at the museum in 2014.

The city contracted with Texas A&M for the USS Westfield exhibit. “We thought it was fitting as they preserve it they can help interpret it. It was a perfect marriage. ... We were developing (the exhibit) as it was being conserved,” said Harris.

The museum provided extra space for the large reconstructions made from many small artifacts. “We wanted as many artifacts as we could get,” Harris said.

Texas A&M
The wire mesh boiler reconstruction (left) includes artifacts and reproduced areas. Visitors can see the engine cylinder and six display cabinets feature dinnerware, part of a gun shaft, belt buckles and many other items.

“There is a lot missing, but we have a mural that shows the entire side view of the ship,” said Parkoff. “The public starts getting the idea, ‘Wow, this was a big ship.’”

The city wanted patrons to be able to understand the exhibit by taking a self-guided tour.

“We said there are a whole lot of pieces here. We wanted to make sure the story could really be told so that when John Q. Citizen walked in,” he could make sense of it, Harris said.

A grand opening was held on March 2. “Now we are in the planning stages to really promote the exhibit.”

Big selling point: Saving on costs

Now, back to the win-win situation possible for the CSS Georgia.

By using technologies available at the university and labor from graduate and undergraduate students, the cost of designing and building the USS Westfield exhibit was about $80,000, as opposed to $200,000 if it had been done elsewhere, Parkoff said. The College of Architecture's Automated Fabrication Laboratory provided expertise and fabricated 85 percent of the exhibit.

USS Westfield exhibit in Texas City (Courtesy of Texas A&M)

“It gave these students an opportunity to learn all of these skills, whether welding or using plasma cutters.” They also learned to design an exhibit and use AutoCAD. “These students have walked away with an amazing set of skills.”

Texas City put in about $100,000 into the project, Harris said. “We feel that is very cost effective with this particular exhibit.” A turnkey job with a private firm would have cost more, he added.

The Navy’s Neyland and Parkoff don’t want the bulk of the CSS Georgia to go into long-term curation and storage. The latter is optimistic a plan will move forward after he submits it in coming weeks.

Lab at the Washington Navy Yard (Clifford Davis, U.S. Navy)

If artifacts do come to the Navy Yard, they will be stored at a laboratory, where experts can monitor damaging humidity. “It is not a long-time solution to Georgia materials,” said Neyland. The Navy also has a storage warehouse in Virginia, though it may not be suitable for much of the ironclad.

Conservation at Navy Yard (U.S. Navy)
Dr. Parkoff said like the Westfield exhibit, a CSS Georgia display could feature information on technology and life on an ironclad. But the CSS Georgia exhibit would be much larger. “We would promote this around Georgia,” he said, and officials could attempt to raise money through historic preservation grants and historical societies.

The Navy and Army Corps of Engineers could work to broker an impressive exhibit, he said.

“I am optimistic that it won’t be sitting in the warehouse long,” said Neyland. “Someone will see it is worth exhibiting. Maybe we will have a bidding war.”

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