(Editor’s Note: The following post is a wrap-up of the efforts to raise the CSS Georgia from January to August 2015.)
SAVANNAH, Ga. – As cities along the East Coast scramble to bolster their infrastructure and employ massive dredges to deepen their harbors, Savannah began its harbor expansion with a team of 10 people who used wire baskets to raise a handful of objects at a time.
The team, a group of marine archaeologists from Panamerican Consultants, Inc., was recovering and preserving small artifacts from the CSS Georgia, a Civil War-era ironclad that rests at the bottom of the Savannah River.
Their work, along with that of U.S. Navy divers who recovered ordnance in July and will be raising larger portions of the vessel through September, comprises the first phase of the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project, or SHEP.
Once complete, the approximately $700 million project will deepen the river from 42 to 47 feet, extend its length by 7 miles, widen three bends, and add two meeting areas to better accommodate post-Panamax ships as early as 2021, according to Jason O’Kane, a senior project manager at U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Savannah District.
Post-Panamax refers to a new class of cargo ships too large to fit through the Panama Canal before its expansion, which is expected to be complete by April 2016.
“Many have wanted to recover this historically significant Civil War vessel since the 1970s and learn more about her,” O’Kane said. “With SHEP underway, it now must be removed in order to deepen this area of the channel. It’s exciting to be getting both now.”
Before marine archaeologists began their daily dives in January 2015, the amount of historical information on the CSS Georgia was limited.
“We know very little about the ship itself, other than from the lithographs from the Civil War period in the newspapers,” Stephen James, lead archaeologist from Panamerican Consultants, Inc., said while presenting his team’s findings at a public lecture in the Savannah History Museum on June 2.
Though no blueprints exist, historians do know the Ladies Gunboat Association raised approximately $122,000 in 1862 (roughly $2 million to $3 million today) to construct the ironclad, whose armor or “casemate” was fashioned from alternating railroad irons because the South lacked sufficient foundries for pressing steel into plates.
The ship’s tonnage and undersized propulsion, combined with the strength of the Savannah River’s currents and tides, pigeonholed the vessel into becoming a floating battery across from Old Fort Jackson, where it guarded against a Union naval advance into Savannah.
The ship served in this capacity for two years but never fired a shot in battle, except for an unconfirmed volley against a Union rowboat attempting to scout upstream. As Gen. William T. Sherman’s troops advanced on Savannah in December 1864, Confederate forces scuttled the ship to prevent it from being used against them.
The ironclad remained undisturbed for more than a century before a dredge struck and marked it in 1968.
Raising the wreck
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers contracted Texas A&M University to survey the vessel in 1980, which formed the foundation for further exploration. Six years later divers recovered approximately 100 cannonballs and rifled Brooke shells, along with two cannons, which are displayed at Old Fort Jackson.
As sonar and survey technology improved, marine archaeologists gained a clearer picture of the wreck site’s topography. This technology also brought into focus the damage inflicted on the vessel from more than 150 years of routine dredging, merchant traffic, and its most formidable enemy: teredo worms, which James likened to “sea termites,” that destroyed most of the ship’s wooden hull.
Divers currently use multibeam sonar technology to map the ironclad’s tattered remains, which are spread over a 150- by 250-foot area. Archaeologists subdivided this area into 10-foot by 10-foot squares on an electronic grid to enable them to record the location of and methodically recover the artifacts.
According to James, the 3-D technology allowed archaeologists to virtually fly over the wreck site, pinpoint areas of interest and subsequently send a diver down to explore.
In one case, a suspicious object turned out to be a log trapped underwater in debris; in another, it was a fourth cannon that previous surveys had overlooked because it lay closer to the channel, away from the rest of the wreck.
However, a majority of the artifacts aren’t visible with the multibeam sonar and the conditions in the Savannah River have complicated the recovery process.
The turbid, cold water limits divers’ visibility to 6 inches or fewer and requires them to wear thick gloves, which also inhibit their ability to sense objects. In addition, because the tides can fluctuate up to 8 feet and currents are strongest at high and low tide, the optimal safe diving time is limited to a 1- to 2-hour period at slack tide, when currents slow to a halt.
These factors combine to make the process painstakingly slow. Once on the bottom, the lone diver places a wire basket in the middle of one 10-by-10 foot square, and, while holding onto the basket with one hand, uses his other hand and feet to locate objects.
To the untrained eye on the surface, many of the artifacts look like hunks of barnacle-covered rock, which makes the divers’ job even more impressive. A closer examination, sometimes via X-ray, reveals much more.
“Stuff will just appear out of concretions,” James said.
As divers recover artifacts, they’re sent upriver to Jim Jobling and Parker Brooks, a project manager and graduate student, respectively, from Texas A&M University’s Conservation Research Laboratory. They tag and catalogue the artifacts before sending them to the lab in Texas for further analysis and conservation.
Piecing it together
To date, archaeologists have recovered more than 1,500 artifacts, which have provided rare glimpses into the lives of Confederate sailors serving aboard the ironclad.
Archaeologists knew life aboard the creaking, leaking ironclad was not a choice assignment, but the discovery of three full sets of leg irons suggests something more: that sailors had to be shackled in some cases to prevent them from going AWOL.
Another item, a bayonet handle from a P.S. Justice rifle bayonet, model 1861, type II, illustrates Confederate sailors’ hopeless plight if they were to encounter the enemy. P.S. Justice products were notorious for their lackluster performance.
One inspector wrote that the bayonets were “of such frail texture that they bend like lead, and many of them break off when going through the bayonet exercise,” according to College Hill Arsenal, a website specializing in Civil War relics. Imagine going to war with a weapon that couldn’t harm a practice dummy.
Archaeologists have also recovered a panoply of munitions and accoutrements related to the six cannons on board the ship. Brass parts like the “eyes for tackle” and an elevator screw, used to control the direction and height of the cannon, respectively, were still in good condition. Brooks was impressed the elevator screw still turned after being submerged for more than 150 years.
In addition to the cannonballs and rifled rounds, archaeologists raised two grapeshot stands, comprised of five to six golf ball-sized rounds that dispersed from the cannon like a shotgun, and an 80- to 100-pound “bolt” round.
The bolt is a solid, gunpowder-less projectile from a 6.4-inch Brooke rifled cannon that was used to puncture fortifications and ironclad armor.
“With this, they didn’t want boom, they wanted a hole,” Brooks said.
But amid the fort-busting shells are more delicate items such as pottery, wine bottles, and a hand-polished glass top from a decanter or condiment bottle.
“It really makes our day when we find objects used by an individual,” Brooks said. “It helps tell more of the story.”
During the June 2 lecture, James said the CSS Georgia also functioned as a sieve over the years. His team recovered several pieces of decorated pottery that predated European explorers’ arrival in North America, which drew a collective “oooh” from the audience.
The past and future meet
Despite the amount of information archaeologists have gathered from the artifacts, many questions remain.
For example, archaeologists still don’t know if the CSS Georgia had one or two propellers. Divers recovered one propeller July 24, and even though modern surveys have never shown signs of a second propeller, it is probable the second propeller was removed from the site during a salvage operation in the 1860s-1870s, according to Julie Morgan, USACE Savannah District lead archaeologist for the project.
In addition, though Civil War-era lithographs show 10 gun ports, archaeologists haven’t determined how many cannons were on board when it was scuttled.
Six cannons have been identified at the site: two reside at Old Fort Jackson from the 1986 survey, and Navy divers recovered the other four in late July of this year. One of those four cannons turned out to be a 9,000-pound Dahlgren rifled cannon, which was a pleasant surprise to archaeologists when it was raised July 21 as they previously thought a different type of cannon rested at the site.
Other issues surrounding the propulsion equipment have archaeologists scratching their heads.
Jobling said the engine block is missing mounting screws, and the wrist pin that would have joined the piston and the connecting rod has been removed. If the wood beneath the engine block rotted away, the screws would still be attached to the block, so this suggests a different explanation.
Did Confederate sailors remove these items before scuttling the vessel? Another hypothesis is that a post-Civil War salvage operation was aborted midstream when the funding ran out and the recovered items were dumped back overboard.
In addition to these nuanced questions, the overall fate of the ironclad and its artifacts after the recovery also remains obfuscated.
Navy divers have begun recovering larger sections of the casemate and are raising them in five-ton chunks. Later, a mechanized “five finger” style crane and clamshell will grapple and scoop the remaining casemate, assorted railroad iron, and the bed on which the wreck rests.
Archaeologists will quickly sift through the items to separate artifacts of worth and duplicates, Jobling said.
The ship, which is considered a captured enemy vessel, belongs to the Navy. The Corps of Engineers is working with the Navy to find museums interested in exhibiting the ironclad’s artifacts, but nothing concrete has been established.
With time, perhaps the CSS Georgia’s future, like the remnants of its past that are still being raised from the Savannah River’s turbid waters, will become clearer. For now, speculation will have to suffice.