Wednesday, February 28, 2018

The bullet, ball field and Baton Rouge: Battle artifact discovery at church prompts a look at neighborhood -- then and now

Renovation of baseball field (Courtesy of Sacred Heart)

[Click here for a February 2019 update!]

Perhaps it was dropped by a young Confederate soldier working furiously to reload his rifle as his regiment advanced. Or maybe a shot fired by the opposing 14th Maine or 21st Indiana regiments missed its mark and drilled harmlessly into the soil.

Whatever the circumstances, the Minié ball rested, was covered by more dirt and -- eventually -- by a baseball field at the northeast corner of what's now Florida Boulevard and North 22nd Street in the Mid City area of Baton Rouge, La.

A 1916 Sanborn insurance map shows the ball field being used by African-American teams. The Stanocolas, a squad fielded by the Standard Oil Company of Louisiana, followed in the 1920s. Since the late 1930s, Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church -- which did not exist during the Battle of Baton Rouge in August 1862 – has owned and used the recreational parcel.

All those years, the bullet stayed undiscovered -- until last week. Crews renovating the church parcel spotted the artifact in soil excavated for a new light pole.

“You never know what you might find,” the church’s Facebook page said.

For church Deacon David Dawson, the find brought some headlines, and a bit of attention.

“I have people 80 years old coming up and saying they played baseball on this field,” he said.

Reading about this tiny bullet led me to delve deeper into the battle, the neighborhood and the church that serves a diverse flock.

Counting on an ironclad

Baton Rouge has always been a river city. The Mississippi, unsurprisingly, played a dominating role during the Civil War, when the capital had about 5,500 residents.

The much larger New Orleans fell to Federal forces in late April 1862. Baton Rouge was abandoned and occupied by Adm. David Farragut a few weeks later. Confederates wanted to regain control of the city so that they could launch attacks along the Red River and retake New Orleans.

CSS Arkansas (Navy Art Collection)

Maj. Gen. John Breckinridge advanced from the east, preparing for the Aug. 5 assault.

Key to success was the formidable CSS ram Arkansas, which had run through the U.S. Navy fleet at Vicksburg just a few weeks before. The plan was for the Arkansas to scatter ships that would drop devastating fire on the attacking Rebels. Parts of the downtown area were reduced by Federal forces so that the ships could better give support to artillery and infantry.

William A. Spedale, in his book “The Battle of Baton Rouge,” wrote: “With the aid of the Arkansas, the Confederates had every reason to feel confident of victory, and the Yankees knew it. Their old wooden ships were no match for the low-profile iron-clad ram.”

Confederates gave it a shot

Click to see battle map
The entrenched Union forces had positions at what is now Sacred Heart church and its ball field. At that time, it was just woods and fields.

Breckinridge’s Hunt and Smith brigades began the push toward the river and the fighting extended to the public cemetery (now called Magnolia Cemetery, across the street from Sacred Heart and its ballfield).

“A fierce fight soon developed across the length and width of the cemetery, most of it in hand-to-hand combat. The tomb and monuments were chipped and pockmarked where Minie balls struck them, and the magnolia and cedar trees were scarred and twisted from cannon fire,” Spedale wrote.

The Rebels pushed the Yankees back toward the river, but had to endure artillery rounds lobbed by U.S. Navy ships. They knew something was wrong.

A National Park Service summary gives the rest of the story.

“The Arkansas could have neutralized the Union gunboats, but her engines failed and she did not participate in the battle. Federal land forces, in the meantime, fell back to a more defensible line, and the Union commander, Brig. Gen. Thomas Williams, was killed soon after. The new commander, Col. Thomas W. Cahill, ordered a retreat to a prepared defensive line nearer the river and within the gunboats’ protection. Rebels assailed the new line, but finally the Federals forced them to retire. The next day the Arkansas’s engines failed again as she closed on the Union gunboats; she was blown up and scuttled by her crew. The Confederates failed to recapture the state capital.”

Damage to Baton Rouge from the battle (Wikipedia)

Phillip E. Faller, author of  “The Indiana Jackass Regiment in the Civil War," told the Picket that Federal forces withdrew a couple weeks later.

“They got the message from Gen. (Benjamin) Butler to burn the town, and get on the transports and get down to New Orleans.”

Some of the community was burned. But the Confederate hold of Baton Rouge was short-lived. It was reoccupied a few months later and was in Union hands for the duration of the war.

View of national cemetery across street (Sacred Heart)
Soldiers battle among tombstones (Wikipedia)

Few reminders of the battle

Of course, many artifacts have turned up in Baton Rouge in the decades since the Civil War.

Bullet marks behind marker (J. Potts)
“I have heard of people over the years going into Magnolia Cemetery and finding this and that,” said Mary Lee Eggart, an artist and archivist for Sacred Heart.

The city today is known for being the headquarters of state government, a large petrochemical industry and Louisiana State University.

John Potts, program director for the Baton Rouge Civil War Round Table, said there are few Civil War spots to visit today.

One is the national cemetery, below Magnolia Cemetery. It contains the remains of Union dead. The Foundation for Historical Louisiana and other groups hold a memorial service at Magnolia Cemetery each summer.

(Courtesy John Potts)
“It is now under concrete,” Faller says of the majority of Civil War Baton Rouge.

But there are still some reminders of the bloody fighting near and on what is church ground.

Several headstones at Magnolia Cemetery bear fading nicks and damage from bullets.

Baseball field has seen many teams

Sacred Heart of Jesus came to the neighborhood in 1924 as a mission of St. Joseph Church. Its picturesque basilica rises above the community and a parochial school is across the street.

Within decades of the Civil War, Baton Rouge was growing to the east. The church served Italian immigrants who came in the late 19th century. The congregation at that time gathered a block away.

Click to enlarge (Courtesy Sacred Heart)
The ballfield was not then in church hands. Early in the 20th century, it was marked as a “Negro” ball park.

“It is uncertain exactly when the area became a ball field, but as early as 1916, a Sanborn insurance map of Baton Rouge notes it on the far eastern edge of the city as ‘Ball Park,” a church history of the field says. “The 1923 Sanborn insurance map of Baton Rouge labels it as ‘Base Ball Park,’ and shows structures labeled ‘grandstand’ and ‘bleachers.’”

The Standard Oil team, the Stanocolas, and the Cotton States League Highlands played on the field in the 1920s. “Children would wait for foul balls to sail over the third-base wall and then stage a bicycle relay through Magnolia Cemetery to hold on to them. These souvenirs were collected and exchanged for game tickets,” the history says.

Map shows relation of field to Civil War units (P. Faller/ML Eggart)

Sacred Heart, wanting to expand, in 1937 purchased the parcel containing the ballfield and what would become the sanctuary. (Improvements to the field were made in the following years.)

“Despite the hardship of the Depression the parishioners were very generous” and raised money for the new building, Eggart said. It was completed in 1942.

Peak membership was in the 1950s, when the church had about 1,200 families. Today, there are about 800.

1947 aerial photograph of the church, field below it (Sacred Heart)

Serving community's many needs

Sacred Heart, which describes itself as having traditional worship, is a fixture in a neighborhood with many challenges. The area is largely African-American and there are many poor families.

“We are on the edge of North Baton Rouge, which has been for many decades a very impoverished part of town,” said Eggart, a lifelong church member.

While most Sacred Heart members live outside its traditional boundaries, about 20-25 percent of members are black. “We are probably one of the more diverse congregations in Baton Rouge,” said Dawson.

Sacred Heart has one of the largest Society of Saint Vincent de Paul groups in the parish, making home visits and helping residents with bills.

(Courtesy of Sacred Heart)

Collections from some Masses go to the society, Dawson said. Most who live around the church are not Catholic, but the church considers itself strong in charitable giving.

“The biggest challenge is people coming to church,” he said.

There’s been a concerted effort to breathe new life into Mid City, through development and low-cost housing. Part of the effort is spearheaded by the city; and there are groups, including the nonprofit Mid City Studio, which is fostering entrepreneurship and cultural resources.

Eggart said revitalization in downtown Baton Rouge in the past decade is starting to spread to Mid City.

The immediate area around the Sacred Heart campus has only seen minimum effects as of yet, possibly because it is more residential and the Mid City growth has largely been with new businesses locating there. But we are hopeful that the trend will continue in our direction as Mid City becomes more attractive as a place to do business AND to live.” 

After Easter, it will be 'Play ball!'

Dawson, the church deacon, was put in charge of the ball field overhaul as a “last hurrah” before he goes to seminary in New Orleans.

Magnolia Cemetery is on the other side of the fence (Sacred Heart)

The renovation includes new metal light poles, large safety nets, grading, leveling and resodding. The bullet was unearthed when crews dug down about 3 feet for the light pole. It’s not clear how deep down the artifact had been resting.

Besides baseball, the field is used by church-affiliated groups, including a young girls running group, practice for softball and flag football teams, and child soccer. "We also on occasion let non-school teams use it," said Dawson.

The church is having a family day after Mass on April 8. Gov. John Bel Edwards have been invited to throw the first pitch.

What will happen to the Minié ball?

Staff members are tossing around ideas, but Dawson said perhaps it will be hung on the concession stand wall, with a placard. “When people come to the games they can see it was a battlefield. I don’t want to put it in a jar.”

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Civil War shell found at Florida residence; will be used by Air Force for EOD training

Authorities have removed a Civil War-era artillery shell that a man who lives 35 miles north of Tampa, Fla., found while going through a shed, officials said.

(Hernando County Sheriff's Office)
explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) technician from a nearby military base used an X-ray at the scene to determine that the 30-pound Dahlgren shell had no fuse or powder.

"They didn't need to dispose of it," said 2nd Lt. Allison Mills of MacDill Air Force Base.

In a series of Facebook posts and an incident report, the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office detailed what occurred Monday afternoon at a home in Spring Hill.

The man who had called deputies said he was in the shed of a friend when he made the discovery, an Hernando County incident report said. The shed owner said that the cylindrical, cone-shaped round had belonged to his deceased stepfather and had been in the shed for years. "The object appeared to have a metal plug inserted into the tip."

Deputies who received a call in turn called in the bomb squad from the sheriff’s office in nearby Citrus County. That group then reached out MacDill Air Force Base, which sent the expert to remove the object.

Roads were closed, but no homes were evacuated.

Mills, who is with the public affairs office of the 6th Air Mobility Wing at MacDill, told the Picket that the sand-filled shell will be kept for future EOD training on base.

"The EOD flight has found munitions from the WWI, WWII, and Civil war eras several times over the years in the Tampa Bay area," Mills said. "On average, we respond to about 5-6 events like this a year."

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Soldier on monument to get solid footing

The Massachusetts city of Attleboro’s 110-year-old Civil War monument is getting a makeover. The Sun Chronicle reports that the city council has voted 8-1 to appropriate more than $44,000. The 35-foot high granite and bronze monument in Capron Park has been eroded and damaged by vandals who stole bronze cannonballs and a bronze sword from the structure. The statue of a soldier on the top has come loose. • Article

Friday, February 16, 2018

Battle of Selma may return in 2019

One of Selma’s largest annual tourist events could soon be back in the Alabama city next year, reports. Battle of Selma organizers are hopeful that a policy change concerning city fees means the event will be back in 2019. “The details are very important,” said James Hammonds of the April 1865 Society. This year’s event has already been canceled. • Article

Saturday, February 10, 2018

'Do not forsake us': Letter written by a peeved Lincoln donated to presidential museum

Craig Schneeberger with letter (courtesy Abraham Lincoln PLM)

Recent gifts to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Ill., celebrate two aspects of the rich story of our 16th president – the passionate politician and a young boy lost in a book.

A few days ahead of Lincoln’s birthday, the library on Friday said an angry letter written to a colleague and a painting that shows the buckskin-clad Lincoln reading while taking a break from chopping wood were recently donated.

The oil on canvas art work, painted in the late 19th century by William Morton Jackson Rice, will hang in the presidential library for the rest of the year. “The Young Abe Lincoln” is a gift of philanthropist Louis Moore Bacon, a press release said, and is 7 feet wide and nearly 5 feet tall.

According to the library, an auction house previously described the painting this way: “This Romantic view of Abe Lincoln exemplifies the spirit of the era. Here is the heroic figure: strong, pure and, as yet, unworried by the hardships of leading a country at war with itself.”

(click to enlarge)

The letter was donated by a Georgia descendant of Illinois politician Andrew McCormack, whose career included a stint as Springfield mayor. His name also has been spelled McCormick.

Lincoln was unhappy that McCormack and others in the “Long Nine” group, named for their height, wanted to give the state printer job to newspaper editor William Walters, a Democrat, rather than his choice, friend and Whig ally Simeon Francis.

Lincoln, showing his political skills and partisanship, wrote to the legislators, probably in January 1839. He signed the letter with only his last name, perhaps as a declaration of anger:

“I have just learned, with utter astonishment, that you have some notion of voting for Walters,” Lincoln wrote to McCormack. “This certainly can not be true. It can not be, that one so true, firm, and unwavering as you have ever been, can for a moment think of such a thing. What! Support that pet of all those who continually slander and abuse you, and labour, day and night, for your destruction. All our friends are ready to cut our throats about it.”

Lincoln's strong words notwithstanding, Walters won the vote.

The letter was passed down by McCormack’s descendants and was donated by Fred Schneeberger of Dunwoody, a suburb of Atlanta. His son, Craig, had visited the Springfield museum and suggested it go there.

"We just loved the museum up there," the younger Schneeberger told the Picket. The document had been passed down for seven generations, and there was no consideration of it being sold because it could be lost to any public access, he said. The first-born son of the next generation would receive it, but Craig's son thought it should be donated, and the idea went from there.

(Click to enlarge)

Schneeberger said the family doesn't mind that Lincoln took their ancestor and others to task. "I think it's just politics. Everyone gets nailed once in a while."

“Both these items are wonderful additions to our collection,” said Alan Lowe, executive director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, in the release. “One shows the Lincoln that we sometimes forget – the politician trying to lead a team. The other shows Lincoln as we’d like to remember him – hardworking and never wasting an opportunity to improve himself.”

Full text of Lincoln letter

Dear Captain:

I have just learned, with utter astonishment, that you have some notion of voting for Walters.  This certainly can not be true.  It can not be, that one so true, firm, and unwavering as you have ever been, can for a moment think of such a thing.  What!  Support that pet of all those who continually slander and abuse you, and labour, day and night, for your destruction.  All our friends are ready to cut our throats about it.  An angel from heaven could not make them believe, that we do not connive at it.  For Heaven’s sake, for your friends sake, for the sake of the recollection of all the hard battles we have heretofore fought shoulder, to shoulder, do not forsake us this time.  We have been told for two or three days that you were in danger; but we gave it the lie whenever we heard it.  We were willing to bet our lives upon you.  Stand by us this time, and nothing in our power to confer, shall ever be denied you.  Surely!  Surely! You do not doubt my friendship for you.  If you do, what under Heaven can I do, to convince you.  Surely you will not think those who have been your revilers, better friends than I.  Read this & write what you will do.

Your friend,

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

William, Mary and Harry: Virginia university digitizes donated diary of a young Yankee soldier held captive on campus

Courtesy: Special Collections Research Center, Swem Library, W&M
Wren Building, where prisoners were held in 1862

Henry “Harry” Alexander Scandrett’s 1862 pocket diary covers only three months, but it provides rich detail of camp life -- from reveille in the morning to rain, drills, rain, guard duty, rain and more drills.

It also documents innovations in warfare.

The 19-year-old corporal with the 70th New York Infantry wrote that he spied the ironclads Monitor and Merrimack (CSS Virginia) a month after their famous battle near Norfolk, Va., ushered a new era of naval warfare. But his transport had to leave before an anticipated second battle, which never occurred.

Scandrett noted an instance of relatively new intelligence gathering on May 4, 1862: “Yorktown is evacuated. The rebels were firing until half past four this morning. A Balloon reconnaissance discovered the evacuation about 6 o clock.”

Harry Scandrett
What happened to Scandrett and some comrades the next day is what landed his journal in the collection of the library at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, where it has been transcribed, digitized and made available online to the public.

"Was in my first battle today. About 1 Oclock P.M. our regiment was marched into the field,” Scandrett wrote in the leather-bound volume. “We were thrown in advance and through some blunder was not reinforced. We have lost all our company officers and our field officers are all wounded. With fifteen others I was taken prisoner and am now in William & Mary college."

Jay Gaidmore, director of William & Mary Libraries’ Special Collections Research Center, told the Picket that Scandrett’s diary is the first time a reference is made of prisoners of war being kept at the college, however briefly.

The hapless Yanks were taken to the Wren Building, one of only three campus buildings at the time. “The family thought he was a prisoner in a building. He was probably kept out in the rain,” said Gaidmore.

The men were marched to Richmond the next day. Scandrett wrote about receiving a small loaf of bread, a piece of meat and soup on his second day of captivity.

The 16 were paroled on May 12 and returned to Washington, where the diary ends at the beginning of a well-deserved furlough.

Attacks and counterattacks

Historians knew William & Mary had a hospital, and archaeologists have previously discovered entrenchments and other features belonging to Confederate and Union forces.

The Battle of Williamsburg, according to the National Park Service, was the first pitched battle of the Peninsula Campaign, following the Confederate retreat from Yorktown. The 70th New York was part of Hooker's division.

Hooker attacked the Southerners at Fort Magruder, but was repulsed. Confederate counterattacks ultimately failed and they made a nighttime withdrawal toward Richmond. Casualties numbered more than 3,800. Scandrett and the other captives were taken about two miles to the college.

Page from the diary
Union troops occupied the college after the battle. They burned the Wren Building later in the year. Confederates occasionally harassed them until war's end. “There were always skirmishes and raiders but no full-pitch battles,” Gaidmore said.

A soldier's story

Like most Civil War diarists, Scandrett made ample observations about the weather, rations and camp life, which he called “tearribly dull.” He wrote on March 1: “Had a brigade review this afternoon lasting from one O clock to six.  All the brigades was present, and Sickles reviewed us. The whole affair passed off very well, although it was pretty muddy.”

The Allegheny, Pa., native, who enlisted in May 1861, provided a window into eastern Virginia campaigning only a year into the war.

April 24: “On fatigue duty again today. Were favored with a few shell from the rebels but no damage was done. Great cry but little wool.  Are to go on picket at 2 A.M., tomorrow.”

Scandrett documented the deaths of comrades to typhoid and drowning. He served as a pallbearer at the funeral for the typhoid victim.

Of the battle that landed him in captivity, the soldier said his regiment performed “nobly.” Company E “was very much cut-up indeed.” The 70th New York suffered heavy casualties; he wrote about the wounding of regimental commander Lt. Col. William Dwight Jr., and visiting him weeks later.

Hancock's men charge at Williamsburg (Library of Congress)

(Those looking at the online version will notice there are two entries about Scandrett’s capture. He ran out of room in the regular sequence and continued the narrative at the front of the book.)

Scandrett returned to service and was promoted first sergeant in 1863, re-enlisted and made first lieutenant in June 1864, a month before the 70th New York was mustered out of service.

Donation for others to enjoy

According to online records, Scandrett settled in Faribault, Minn. He was in the insurance business and served as a probate judge. He and his wife, Jane, had three children, one of whom died as an infant.

(Courtesy of Special Collections Research Center, Swem Library)

Family genealogy says the veteran came out of the war with impaired health “but fought against an invalid condition with indomitable courage and patience.” Scandrett was only 40 when he passed away in September 1883.

His descendants in late 2016 donated the diary, which covered Feb. 27, 1862, to May 23, 1862. The gift details were finalized last spring.

“We felt we found the perfect place to donate the diary, the place where our great-grandfather was held as a prisoner back in 1862,” said Janet Hunt of Wisconsin in a recent college press release. “We know this little piece of both our history and that of William and Mary will be well-preserved at the library for others to use and enjoy now and in the future.”

Tami Back of University Libraries said the diary will be available to researchers in Swem Library’s Special Collections Research Center. The diary, which is written in fading pencil, is kept in a special acid-free folder.

Gaidmore said descendants were not aware of any other diaries written by Scandrett. 

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Behind every Civil War picture there is a story, sometimes hard to find. Author Ron Coddington is a detective on the case

Ron Coddington at the Civil War show in Dalton, Ga.

The two troopers with the 13th New York Cavalry wanted their loved ones to know they were ready for whatever would come at them. A painted patriotic camp scene serves as a backdrop as they pose, swords at their sides and their feet resting on a photographer’s props. One gazes at the camera, his ample whiskers concealing what might be a sly smile.

“It’s a favorite of mine. It’s in pristine condition,” said Ronald S. Coddington, an author, historian and journalist who was manning a table Saturday at the Chickamauga Civil War Show in Dalton, Ga. The show concludes Sunday.

The New Jersey native was talking about one of the 2,700 carte de visite, or small portrait cards, he has collected since he was 14. Unlike most people, Coddington, now 55, took his passion to a much deeper level.

He is working on his fifth book – about nurses – in his “Faces of the Civil War" series for Johns Hopkins University Press. He publishes Military Images magazine and also has written for Civil War News and the The New York Times’ Disunion series during the Civil War’s sesquicentennial. (Full disclosure: I worked during the 1990s with Coddington at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution; where he was an illustrator, caricaturist and graphic artist).

This weekend, Coddington interacted with patrons on a number of levels, scanning tintypes, ambrotype images and cartes de visite for possible print and online galleries for this magazine, getting story ideas, networking and weighing in on a card’s value, a la “Antiques Roadshow” style. While the market currently is a bit soft, the higher-quality images can still draw a pretty penny, some up to the tens of thousands of dollars.

The Arlington, Va., resident spoke briefly spoke with me about what he and about 100 other such collectors do to learn more about the subjects of cards. Coddington goes the extra mile, researching newspapers, old records, pension records and more.

“Show me a photo of somebody and let me read about them,” he said. He writes about 1,000 words for each image appearing in his books.

Many of the photographs in his books belong to other collectors. He purchased the one of the men with the 13th New York at the Dalton show about 15 years ago.

(Courtesy of Ronald S. Coddington)
The gentleman on the right is Q.M. Sgt. Henry Augustus Blanchard, a “big, stout, square-built” fellow who served until the end of the war, despite declining health. His photo and vignette appeared in Coddington’s first book, “Faces of the Civil War: An Album of Union Soldiers and Their Stories.”

Coddington does not know the identity of the other NCO. He said that happens about 25 percent of the time.

Cartes de visite were the baseball cards of the time. Unlike a tintype photographc, the cards came from a glass plate negative, allowing a soldier or sailor to purchase a dozen copies to hold or send to loved ones by letter.

Coddington spoke a few years ago with the Civil War Trust about Military Images, which has pushed its online and social media presence.

Reverse side of scanned cartes de visite

He told the preservation group: “
Over time, I’ve come to understand and appreciate that these rare soldier portraits humanize the terrible conflict that raged on our soil during the four bloodiest and most violent years in our nation’s history. When I see these photos, which were personal, intimate objects shared with family, friends and comrades at a time of war, I am reminded of these soldiers’ courage, and my own responsibilities as an American and a world citizen.

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. 9-11 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.