Wednesday, October 21, 2020

A staggering haul: Final report on CSS Georgia recovery details thousands of artifacts pulled from Savannah River

Dahlgren cannon, bayonet hilt, eagle breast plate (USACE-Savannah)

It’s been more than three years since the last of  an estimated 13,601 artifacts brought ashore from the Confederate ironclad CSS Georgia wreck site were loaded onto a truck and sent from Savannah, Ga., to Texas A&M University for conservation.

Archaeologists who worked with US Navy divers in 2015 and 2017 to clear the remnants of the floating battery used to guard the city’s defenses from autumn 1862 to December 1864 earlier this year filed a final report on their efforts.

They detail what’s known about the ship’s design, construction, propulsion, armaments and life aboard the “Mud Tub,” which was scuttled as Sherman’s forces neared Savannah.

Gordon Watts, who helped prepare the report written by Panamerican Consultants for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, recently reminded the Picket that the wreck site a hundred yards off Old Fort Jackson was not undisturbed.

Rather, 20th century dredging disturbed the site and salvage operations not long after the Civil War removed a quantity of artifacts that might have filled in gaps about the underpowered CSS Georgia. A portion of the final report includes a fascinating passage by CSS Georgia documentary maker Michael Jordan about that salvaging and why one man involved tossed some of the recovered material back into the river out of frustration with the contract and officials.

The sheer number and array of artifacts -- which includes interlocking railroad iron used to for armor -- found in the river make up a large part of the massive report. In a future post, we will feature a brief Q&A with Watts and discuss a few answers to key questions raised about the CSS Georgia before the diving and mechanized recovery even began.

Here’s a summary of some of what was found in 2015 and 2017 as part of the Corps’ efforts to remove barriers in the Savannah harbor to make way for a significant deepening of the vital shipping channel:

Material associated with the CSS Georgia: 440 tons

Recovered artifacts: 32,782

What was or is being conserved: 13,601 artifacts weighing 165 tons

What was reburied in the river: 19,181 artifacts weighing 274 tons

Largest portion of surviving casemate (USACE)
Total dives (including contracts and Navy: 314

Number of cannon recovered: 5 (others were previously found). Divers and crews on a barge pulled up two IX-inch Dahlgren cannon, a small cast iron 6-pounder and two 6.4-inch single-banded Brooke rifles. Three have been cleaned and are ready for shipment to the National History and Heritage Command, which stores the artifacts at the Washington Navy Yard. The second Dahlgren and Brooke will be finished shortly.

6-pounder case following conservation with shot and wood sabots (USACE)
Large-caliber shells: “In total, 246 large caliber shells and bolts were brought up, as well as complete and partial stands of grape shot, evidence of canister rounds and smaller 6-pounder solid shot, including a remarkably well preserved box filled with 6-pounder shot. Totals for the larger munitions include 127 conical shells for the 6.4-inch Brooke rifle, 69 spherical shells for the IX-Inch Dahlgren smoothbore, and 49 bolts for the Brooke rifle.”

Discarded military munitions: 246

Single-shot percussion or flintlock pistol (USACE)
Firearms: 1. It was a single-shot either percussion or flintlock pistol. “Although there is no mention of single-shot pistols being standard issue to the Confederate soldiers as seen in the inventory the use of non-standard issue weapons is not unheard as the Confederate military used whatever was available and soldiers often utilized their own personal, non-issued weapons. The absence of the other pistol and rifle types in the artifact assemblage is not surprising, as these were most likely wanted and easily carried by the abandoning crew members.”

Small arms rounds: 153 of varying caliber and make were recovered from the CSS Georgia.

Casemate: South section recovered, East and West sections reburied

Propellers recovered: One, the other may have been previously salvaged

Steam cylinders found: Both

Clothing buttons: 24 (metal, glass, wood, bone and composite)

Tools: 38, including augers, axes, chisels, drills, files, hammers, pliers, scrapers, and wrenches

Hammers: 5

Kaolin smoking pipe bowls: 8 (example, photo right)

Bayonet hilts: 6, all being saber or sword-type bayonets. “Ironically no examples of Enfield bayonets have been recovered, as this was the type of rifle found on the ship.”

Swords: Two model 1832 foot-artillery swords were recovered. The M1832 foot artillery sword was developed and manufactured by Nathan P. Ames, and had multiple variations in blade size and shape. The identifiable portion of this sword is the grip, with the straight set perpendicular to the grip.

Among the most significant artifacts were pieces associated with brass gun sights and percussion locks.

“These were used in tandem to provide a greater degree of accuracy and instant discharge of the gun during naval engagements. Instruments of this type are relatively rare in archaeological settings because brass instruments like these were typically melted down and repurposed after the Civil War. The group of brass naval gun sights and percussion locks recovered from the CSS Georgia represents one of the largest, if not the largest, ever recovered from a Civil War site.”

Jim Jobling, lab manager at Texas A&M's Conservation Research Laboratory, puts the number of artifacts sent to Texas a bit higher than the number listed by Panamerican. He says the lab has conserved 13,761 out of 18,399 items. About 10,500 have been shipped and the lab has another 3,200 ready to go.

Panamerican Consultants, which is based in Memphis, Tenn., said the recovery generated extensive data on the ironclad.

“Three sections of casemate, disarticulated railroad rail armor, elements of steam machinery, and ordnance comprise the major surviving elements of the vessel. Small artifacts, vessel hardware, and fastenings are also present in association with those elements.”

Buckles like this were made  in nearly all states (USACE)
The top right image in this blog post is an eagle-embossed breast plate shown before conservation. These cast brass items were issued to Union soldiers and attached to their cartridge box shoulder belt.

On the front side, there is a depiction of an eagle holding arrows of war and olive branches of peace in its talons. On the reverse side, there are two sets of holes for the hooks that were necessary for attaching the plate to the cross-chest lanyard of a cartridge box. These were made by multiple manufactures from the early 1850s to the end of the Civil War. Soldiers often referred to the plate as a “shoulder belt plate.”

Part 2: A conversation with archaeologist, diver Gordon Watts about the wreck

Jim Jobling sprays down engine cylinders (USACE)

Friday, October 2, 2020

Man who created and sold a fake Civil War-themed desk gets probation. His victims say the pain endures. Why did he do it?

(Courtesy of John Banks'
Civil War blog)

Harold Gordon says he fashioned and sold a fake Civil War memorial desk because debilitating medical problems left him in a financial crisis. The federal government contends he methodically duped a renowned art dealer, and by extension a museum and curator -- and caused lasting harm to their reputations.

The cost of Gordon’s scheme is detailed in federal court documents filed before he was sentenced Tuesday in US District Court in Connecticut to five years’ probation and restitution.

The government had argued a sentence of 12 to 18 months in prison followed by supervised release would be within guidelines. The judge cited the retired self-employed antiques dealer's health when issuing the sentence.

Gordon, who claimed to have bought the ornate desk from the descendant of a Connecticut soldier, pleaded guilty in January 2019 to one count of wire fraud.

“Harold Gordon has caused me severe embarrassment, loss of my nationally recognized reputation as a foremost expert and an unmeasurable loss in business,” folk art expert and “Antiques Roadshow” appraiser Allan Katz said in a court document.

Gordon, 71, a master woodworker, admitted to converting a secretary desk at his Templeton, Mass., home into an extravagant fake.

According to the government, Gordon, by “engaging in mendacity at every turn,” told Katz that the circa 1876 desk was made for the family of a Connecticut soldier, John Bingham, who died at the Battle of Antietam in 1862. Gordon’s calculated efforts included providing false provenance for the piece of furniture, authorities said.

“He further falsely stated that the surviving members of the soldier’s regiment, including Wells Bingham (John’s brother), had decorated the secretary desk to give as a war memorial to the fallen soldier’s family,” prosecutors said in a presentencing memo.

Desk in Hartford in 2017 (Courtesy of John Banks' Civil War blog)

While the Bingham boys did fight with the 16th Connecticut Infantry, the story about the desk wasn’t true. Gordon’s exacting work on the desk was convincing, down to the Civil War-era tools and materials he used in the scheme.

Standing 8-feet tall, the desk, made of walnut, oak and maple, has drawers, a bookcase and intricate artisanal touches. The handcrafted the words “Antietam” and “Sept. 17, 1862” were made from barnyard bone and Gordon fashioned a cloth star out of period fabric to make it resemble a remnant of the 16th Connecticut’s battle flag, prosecutor asserted. A clock at the top includes the words “The Union Preserved.”

Gordon sold the desk to Katz – who had studied the desk for its authenticity – in March 2014 for $64,500. Katz made a video detailing the desk and it was put up for sale for $375,000, according to news reports, at the Winter Antiques Show in New York. The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Conn., purchased the desk for an undisclosed price in early 2015. Katz later paid another $25,000 to Gordon because of the tidy profit from that sale, prosecutors said.

(Courtesy of John Banks’ Civil War blog)

At the time, the museum said it was “thrilled to add this stunning piece” to its collection of folk art and Civil War-era items.

Civil War blogger John Banks, who has followed the story of the desk for several years, detailed what’s known about the Bingham brothers in a 2011 post. The East Haddam residents were just teenagers when they joined the Union army. John, 17, son of a farmer, died in the fighting at a cornfield at Antietam. Wells survived the war

The story of the amazing artifact unraveled in 2018, according to reports, when the editor of the Maine Antique Report noticed the Bingham desk appeared to be similar to an unadorned desk photographed at Gordon’s home. The woodworker then admitted the desk’s story was bogus.

Gordon was boastful about the fraudulent piece and said that he “had created a new art form,” the government contended. “It’s the apotheosis of my own making,” Gordon said in an interview, according to a March 2018 New York Times article.

Detail of Abraham Lincoln (John Banks)
In a memo filed with the court, a federal public defender detailed a litany of health conditions, including a stroke, Gordon has endured. “In 2014, at the one of the lowest points in his life, he sold a prized possession: a Victorian-era secretary desk which he had elaborately decorated and for which he had created a semi-fictional historical backstory.”

Gordon apologized Tuesday via video conference, according to the Hartford Courant.

His lawyers argued that when he first began work on the fake, he had no intention of selling it. He worked from a desk that indeed dated to the Civil War period, they stated.

“He put the piece in his living room and intended to keep it. But when his medical conditions intensified in 2012, impeding his ability to work, and his medical expenses mounted, he grew desperate,” they argued in documents.

Katz, in his written statement, said Gordon “has caused me severe embarrassment, loss of my nationally recognized reputation as a foremost expert and an unmeasurable loss in business.” He said the master craftsman spent two years working to deceive him and basked in the attention he gave in interviews about his fraudulent handiwork.

Gordon’s lawyers have said their client was not motivated by money or prestige.

Katz made full restitution to the Hartford museum, which said forgers like Gordon do great damage to the cultural marketplace. “The opportunism of this forgery was both craven and bald in its intent to maximize financial gain and to ensnare a number of institutions and organizations in the process,” the CEO for the Wadsworth Atheneum said.

The unidentified curator involved in the transaction no longer works for the museum.

“Mr. Gordon has deeply impaired my credibility as a scholar and curator. As a result of Mr. Gordon’s crimes, my achievements and relationship with the Wadsworth Atheneum have been completely incinerated. I will never be able to return to this institution that once valued my service and applauded my efforts as a curator,” she wrote.

The Picket reached out Thursday to Gordon’s federal public defender but did not hear back. His lawyers wrote that Gordon had no previous criminal history and he hopes to make restitution to Katz.

The desk had been on exhibit at the Hartford museum for about three years before the ruse was detected. The Wadsworth Atheneum said Friday it had no new comment on the matter. It confirmed it not longer has the desk.

U.S. District Judge Jeffrey A. Meyer ordered Gordon to also pay $84,500 in restitution to Katz, who retained the item. The latter said in a 2019 interview that he and his wife “plan on donating it to an institution that might be receptive to having it.” 

According to the Courant, Meyer said he would have sent Gordon to prison if it were not for his health problems, which include cardiovascular and Parkinson’s disease.