Friday, February 2, 2018

CSS Georgia: Documentary goes deep into story of the Savannah ironclad that kept its secrets under water for 150 years

Michael Jordan films dive preparation 
Cannon comes up in 1984 (John Roberson)

Over a span of nearly 50 years -- ending in 2017 -- dive flags would occasionally go up on a stretch of river where generations before a hulking Confederate ironclad vessel guarded Savannah, Ga, during the Civil War.

Divers, working in visibility that one likened to chocolate pudding, slipped beneath the surface of the Savannah River and down to the disarticulated remains of the vessel that was scuttled by its Confederate crew in December 1864 when the Yankees arrived at the seaport’s front door.

At first, the divers came to survey and better understand the CSS Georgia, which served as what’s called a floating battery. Later expeditions focused on removal of artifacts so that the channel could be cleared and deepened for ever-larger commercial vessels that regularly ply past tourists on River Street.

“Red diver, into the water when ready,” are the first words uttered in a new documentary about the recovery and history of the CSS Georgia, which earned the derisive nickname “Mud Tub” when its supporters learned it was too underpowered to leave the city and attack Federal ships that had bottled up Savannah’s river entrance.

But the city may have gotten something better. The CSS Georgia became a strong element of its extensive water defenses.

Animation of what CSS Georgia may have looked like (USACE/Michael Jordan)

“Sometimes being a failure is the best way to succeed,” filmmaker Michael Jordan says of the ironclad’s emerging role. “As a floating fort, it was impregnable and kept the federal Navy at bay for a couple years.”

Working on a contract from the Savannah office of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is in charge of the harbor deepening and the removal of the CSS Georgia, Jordan has produced the hourlong production "From Ironclad to Artifact: The Journey of the CSS Georgia.”

Wreckage has so much to tell

The documentary premieres on February 10 at the Trustees Theater in Savannah, part of the annual Gray’s Reef Film Festival, which benefits a foundation dedicated to preserving the marine sanctuary off the Atlantic coast.

As the title states, the CSS Georgia’s story has indeed been a journey, with triumphs and disappointments along the way. Amazing artifacts and ship components have been pulled up and crews got to see cannon and other items out of the water for the first time in 150 years. But the hull was gone, much of the wood is worm-eaten, some parts are gone and researchers have been unable to find blueprints that give clues to its size and construction. Still, they hope to eventually answer some of the mysteries associated with the ironclad, including its size.

Jordan with one of the recovered guns in 2015

Jordan recently told the Picket that while the CSS Georgia never engaged in battle or a duel with a marauding US Navy ship, it has served a larger purpose for later generations. Rather than being destroyed or put out of commission, it became a time capsule – however damaged by dredges – of a period when resource-pressed Southern communities rushed to build ironclads.

The CSS Georgia was unusual in that its armor consisted of lengths of railroad iron backed by layers of timber, forming a formidable protective shell.

The documentary is rich in history about the vessel, which was built locally after the Ladies’ Gunboat Association raised money across the state. It segues to early attempts at salvaging the iron and other valuable metals and then to efforts over the past half century to bring up large artifacts, including cannon, the protective armor casemate, a propeller, machinery and much more. 

The biggest discoveries and recoveries were in 2015 and 2017, when Navy and contract divers, along with a grapple and clamshell device, scooped up thousands of those artifacts and two large chunks of casemate.

Bringing back the '80s

While the public is likely most familiar with the last two recoveries, I was most intrigued by the documentary’s interviews with and photographs of divers, archaeologists and others toiling during the 1970s and 1980s, when funding did not allow for a full-scale recovery.

(USACE, Michael Jordan)

Jordan spoke with Louis “Lou” Tew, (above) a retired Navy officer who dived on the wreckage in 1969. Later surveys found pronounced deterioration of parts of the ironclad, some due to dredging.

The documentary includes archival images, animation of the boat, filming of recoveries, interviews and small re-enactments of events critical to the CSS Georgia’s history.

Archaeologists and divers worked not far from Old Fort Jackson, another part of the city defenses. The CSS Georgia was anchored and faced downstream, only a couple hundred yards from the fortress.

The late John Roberson of Coastal Heritage Society

Two of the ironclad’s cannons brought up in 1984 are on display outside the walls of the brick fort. One was placed in the moat for a time until it could be moved for conservation. Visitors to the fort heard live audio of the 1984 recovery.

Jordan, a former TV news anchor in Savannah and a filmmaker and author, spent 55 days in the field for the $18,500 project. His travels included the National Civil War Naval Museum in Columbus, Ga., and Texas A&M University, where thousands of artifacts are being treated at its Conservation Research Laboratory. Jordan has a passion for the CSS Georgia, writing a master’s paper about it and producing a small film about a decade ago.

His production will serve as one of the Corps’ components in its educational outreach about the CSS Georgia.

'It was like Christmas'

1979 dive (Jonas Jordan/USACE)
Jordan spent a lot of time on the recovery site in summer 2015, when a US Navy dive team was called in to raise large ship components, scores of artillery rounds and several cannon, two of which were large 9-inch Dahlgren guns.

“I didn’t come home for a month,” said Jordan, who has lived for several years in Knoxville, Tenn. “I was out there every day for days while the Navy divers did the cannonballs and the cannons.”

He said he was fascinated by the Navy divers at work, using muscle, advanced technology and salty language to get the job done. Archaeology students used firehoses to blast piles of river much to look for artifacts, including buckles and other personal belongings. “They were giddy.”

“It was like Christmas for me,” Jordan said of shooting the work that summer.

The CSS Georgia never yielded its treasures easily, as the Navy divers learned ahead of time.

Dredging hits and scars, along with salvage attempts not long after the Civil War, made the wreck site a jumble of rotting wood, chunks of casemate and loose rail and machinery.

Divers could only work a couple of hours a day during “slack time” when the strong current wasn’t too strong to work. And the visibility drops off pretty quickly as one heads to the Savannah River bottom 40 or 50 feet below the surface. One diver told Jordan that they could hear and feel the effect of container ships churning only a 100 or so yards away.

Jordan has pored through Texas A&M, Army Corps and National Archives records to learn more about the CSS Georgia, which was largely forgotten until a dredge hit the vessel in 1968.

Railroad armor on casemate (Picket photo)

Archaeologist Gordon Watts, who has dived and studied the wreck site for decades, told the Picket last year at least seven patterns of interlocking railroad iron were used to make the casemate in 1862.

Where did the ship builders get the railroad iron?

“They were likely to be confiscated,” Watts said – specifically from Northern-owned companies, including a line from Brunswick, Ga., to Jacksonville, Fla. The nephew of US Navy Secretary Gideon Welles came to Savannah after the war to try to recover iron and other material, he said.

Jordan said he delved deeply in the Joseph Welles story, learning details of his winning a federal contract to get the CSS Georgia and CSS Savannah remains out of the shipping channel in the late 1860s.

Welles’ crews pulled up iron, but he and Savannah officials quarreled over how good a job he did. “They complained this Yankee carpetbagger is taking this without moving all the obstructions, which they ironically put in their themselves,” Jordan said.

While research is continuing and there is no yet-discovered written record, it’s very possible Welles dumped much of the CSS Georgia’s remnants back into the river during the dispute, Jordan and others have said.

Big catch, a 32-pounder, during the 1980s (Jonas Jordan/USACE)

Where will boat's story be told?

Of course, the human side of the ironclad’s story is important, too. Duty was difficult and tedious; divers recovered several leg irons used on sailors who got into trouble. The CSS Georgia leaked from above and below. And at least one engine operated all the time to pump out that water, with one scientist saying it could have been 120 degrees inside. It was no pleasure cruise.

Jordan said he hopes viewers of the documentary will “be impressed by what the Corps has done here.” The channel deepening prompted the long-term project and saved a large part of the CSS Georgia. The Corps, he said, worked carefully and with top technology to execute a thorough recovery.

For now, conservation of the artifacts continues at Texas A&M. The casemate and many other pieces of the vessel were reburied in a channel for safekeeping, marking the end of the CSS Georgia’s journey, the documentary shows.

The boat belongs to the US Navy, which has reached out to museums in the South about possible exhibition – if the venues can provide proper climate controls. Talks are ongoing and no deals have been announced.

Jordan said his interest in telling the CSS Georgia’s story, whether in print or video productions, will continue.

“It is such a big story. I couldn’t squeeze it all into a film.”

The Gray’s Reef Film Festival is set for Feb. 9011 in Savannah. A suggested donation to benefit the Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary Foundation is $8 a day for adults and $5 a day for children, students and members of the military. Showings are at Trustees Theater and the Tybee Post Theater. Jordan’s is set for 7 p.m. February 10 at Trustees Theater, 216 E. Broughton Str. See this website for more information and tickets.

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