SAVANNAH, Ga. — She has been stripped by salvage rigs, battered by dredges and had her hull shredded by teredo worms, yet the tattered remnants of the CSS Georgia that were all but forgotten until the 1960s continue to intrigue archaeologists and the community here.
More than 200 people packed the small auditorium at the Savannah History Museum, June 2, to hear marine archaeologists relay discoveries from their daily dives over the past five months.
For some in the audience, their interest in the ironclad was personal.
“I’ve come here tonight to pay some homage,” said Hollis Murray, who said his great-great grandfather, James Augustus Bradshaw, and Bradshaw’s brother, Edwin, served on the ship.
Murray sat in the front row next to his father-in-law, retired Chief Warrant Officer 3 Danny Saulmon, a former U.S. Navy master diver, who said he instructed one of the Navy divers who will recover the larger sections of the CSS Georgia later this month.
The pair chatted about the ship as Stephen James, lead archaeologist from Panamerican Consultants, Inc., began the lecture.
“We know very little about the ship itself, other than from the lithographs from the Civil War period in the newspapers,” James said.
James provided a snapshot of the vessel’s history and discussed ways archaeologists have progressively uncovered more information about the ironclad through technological advances in surveys that began in 1980.
James and his team are using multibeam sonar technology that produces high-resolution, topographic maps of the river bottom. This technology allowed archaeologists to discover a fourth cannon previous surveys missed as it was closer to the center of the channel and away from the rest of the vessel, James said.
So far, archaeologists have recovered more than 1,500 small artifacts that are being catalogued and preserved by Texas A&M University’s Conservation Research Laboratory.
During the lecture, Parker Brooks, a conservator and graduate student at the lab, described the function of four artifacts on display, including a gun carriage cap square and elevator screw, which held the cannon in place and allowed sailors to change its elevation, respectively, a small piece of wood, and a grapeshot stand, which was a cluster of golf-ball size rounds that dispersed when fired from the cannon.
Brooks demonstrated how the elevator screw still turned despite being underwater for more than 150 years.
“Things are living on these artifacts,” Brooks said. “I promise you if you get too close to the grapeshot, you can smell it.”
As divers collect artifacts, they verify positions of the larger objects. This sharpens the electronic map of the area, which is accurate to within an inch or less, James said.
This same map will be used during the second phase of the recovery operation, where U.S. Marine Corps and Navy divers will remove unexploded ordnance (cannonballs) before bringing up larger objects including the cannons, engine cylinders and the casemate.
This phase was scheduled to begin June 1 but was delayed to allow divers extra time to plan the safe recovery of nearly 70 pieces of ordnance – more than they originally anticipated.
Despite what archaeologists are learning through the artifacts, many questions remain.
For example, archaeologists still don’t know if the CSS Georgia had one or two propellers; James said they’ll know when the casemate is raised.
In addition, though lithographs show 10 cannon ports, archaeologists don’t know how many cannons were onboard when its crew scuttled the vessel. Only four cannons have been located; two remain at the wreck site and the other two reside at Old Fort Jackson, James said.
The fate of the ironclad and its artifacts also remains in question.
Julie Morgan, lead federal archaeologist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Savannah District, said the U.S. Navy, which owns the vessel, is talking with the Coastal Heritage Society but no concrete arrangements have been made.
During the lecture, one audience member asked if they had found any personal effects from the ship.
James and Brooks mentioned three complete sets of legs irons and another two to three broken sets, which were used to restrict the mobility of would-be deserters. The team also found a bayonet handle from a P.S. Justice rifle bayonet, model 1861, type II.
James pointed out that the CSS Georgia functioned as a sieve over the years and his team recovered several pieces of decorated pottery that predated European explorers’ arrival in North America, which drew a collective “oooh” from the audience.
“It really makes our day when we find objects used by an individual,” Brooks said. “It helps tell more of the story.”
~Jeremy S. Buddemeier, Corporate Communications Office