As Navy divers with Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group 2 pack up this week and head to their next mission, the stage is set for the mechanized phase of the CSS Georgia’s recovery. Archaeologists will pore over the remaining dregs and continue conservation efforts for the more than 1,500 artifacts they’ve recovered since January of this year.
Despite the fact that the recovery phase draws to a close, the CSS Georgia continues to offer more insight into the Civil War life in Savannah. The following information was gathered from a CSS Georgia Archival Study by New South Associates, published Jan. 31, 2007 (quoted material in italics):
At the time CSS Georgia was launched in 1862, ironclads were cutting-edge technology and the Ladies Gunboat Association, which raised $122,000 ($2-3 million today) to fund the vessel, had high hopes for its success. Those hopes were soon dashed when they discovered how far their dollars went in a resource-constrained, war-time economy.
In September and October (1862), Georgia was being finished and readied for its position around Fort Jackson to defend the river approach to Savannah. By this time, its defects were becoming more obvious, and that led to considerable grumbling about the expense of the project and its disappointing results. On September 2, 1862, Mrs. Edward F. Neufville wrote to George J. Kollock that:
Our iron floating battery is a splendid failure. She has been taken down between the forts and they are obliged to keep her engines at work the whole time to prevent her sinking, she leaks so badly. The officers had a consultation, a day or two after she went down, to decide on the propriety of throwing over her coal to keep her afloat. During the long storm last week, she leaked also from the roof, so that there was not a dry spot for the men or anything else in the vessel, even their beds were wet. She is, however, to be towed down to the obstructions and there moored, and Cousin Josiah [Tattnall] says he will be obliged to have two steam boats to attend upon her. This is a pretty state of affairs is it not (Kollock 1950:242).
As Neufville referenced, life was not easy for those serving on the vessel, especially in the heat of the summer. One officer, Capt. Spotswood, who temporarily commanded the ironclad in 1863, called it “horrible” and lamented how she was “tied fast to a pile pier.”
The crew’s frustration with serving on a floating battery was probably exacerbated as other ships in the Savannah Squadron saw combat and engaged the enemy. As public opinion of the vessel, to include her crew, declined, CSS Georgia was often referred to as the “mud tub.”
Life aboard the mud tub seemed to get progressively worse as the war wore on. The men watched their rations, which consisted of salted pork and beef, bacon, rice, bread, beans and dried peas and vegetables, dwindle.
As cornmeal and flour supplies became scarce they were replaced with more rice, and basic items such as cheese, butter, raisins, tea and coffee were rare treats even in 1862.
One particularly controversial ration was alcohol.
Beloved by the crew and approved by physicians, it was frowned on by officers as the source of discipline problems. Even so, it was made available throughout the Savannah Squadron. A naval distillery was even set up in Augusta to handle the demand (Kennington 1994).
Spirits were rationed in two-ounce increments. And though surely not the lone instance of alcohol negatively impacting the crew, one incident had fatal consequences:
Patrick Judge, captain of the hold on board Georgia, died on July 27, 1863. The cause of death was identified as “inflammation of the brain … produced by a drunken frolic” (Thomas, July 27, 1863).
In light of all the hardship it endured, the crew could look forward to quarterly target practice, which “was probably the highlight of duty on Georgia.” However, this, too, was restricted.
For the quarter beginning July 1, 1863, it was announced that target practice would be limited to six rounds (presumably per gun). Where possible, target practice was also to occur in places where the projectiles could be recovered. It was also announced that wrought iron bolts were no longer to be used (Brooke, June 30, 1863). In February 1864, target practice was reduced to three rounds (Brooke, February 13, 1864).
With such conditions, it’s not difficult to imagine the lure of desertion, which seized many. To complicate matters for the Confederate navy, deserters would often flee straight to Union forces with information about upcoming missions or Confederate weaknesses.
Deserters reported the commonly held view – that CSS Georgia was a “failure,” but conflicting accounts and the uncertainty surrounding the vessel were enough to keep Federal forces back.
… In June of 1863, Charles Nordoff, a Northern correspondent on board a Union flag-of-truce ship, had the chance to see Georgia up close. His description of the vessel, and the obstructions around it, is one of the best available:
… we came in sight of the obstructions by which the rebels have attempted to bar our way up to Savannah; above them, and apparently close to them, lay a nondescript marine monster, which is the iron clad battery Georgia. She lies there, moored with her broadside down the river, prepared to defend the narrow passage which is left in the barrier of piles for the ingress and egress of rebel craft.
We steamed up steadily nearer and nearer, up to the mouth of Augustine Creek, past its upper bank, beyond it for some distance, and ever nearer and nearer to the enemy, till at last an angry flash from the broadside of the Georgia, and presently after a sharp report from her, warned us that we were far enough…. Ahead of us, but a short mile away, were two rows of piles sticking out of the water, and between them, through the opening I havespoken of, a little rusty looking rebel steamer passed on her way up from Augustine Creek….
Beyond lay Georgia—to a sailor’s eye a monstrous creature, something like, in appearance, to the pictures we have of the Merrimac; with sides and ends sloping to the water at an angle of, I should think, 45 degrees, and covered with long slabs or strips of railroad iron; with a long box on top of the deck, which also appeared to be armored; and with her ports open. It is said that she proved unable to stem the tide in the river, and is therefore useless, except as a kind of floating fort (Nordoff 1863; Lawson 1978a, Pt. 1:16; Garrison et al. 1980:19).
Civil War Savannahians had every reason to feel disappointed about the CSS Georgia. Envisioned as an offensive powerhouse, she had to be towed into position and relegated to guard duty; her crew suffered unbearable exposure to the elements, lack of sustenance and resources, and routinely lost men to desertion.
However, the mystique surrounding the ironclad was enough to keep Union naval forces at bay for more than two years – even after they held positions at Hilton Head and Fort Pulaski just six miles downriver.
More than 150 years later, she still guards the entrance to Savannah’s inner harbor. Perhaps the Ladies Gunboat Association’s hopes were realized after all.
~ Jeremy S. Buddemeier, public affairs specialist
Editor’s Note: Information gathered from the CSS Georgia Archival Study by New South Associates, Jan. 31, 2007; Mary Beth Reed, principal investigator; authors: Mark Swanson, historian, New South Associates; and Robert Holcombe, historian, National Civil War Naval Museum.