The ironclad’s last breath

An aerial view of the CSS Georgia’s west casemate, July 2. The 31 x 24 foot segment weighed 67 tons. (Photo by Anne Weathersby.)

SAVANNAH, Ga. – I stood aboard the CSS Georgia recently and it was surreal.

The hulking, 67-ton section of the west casemate – still dripping with seawater – reeked of rotting mussels and more than a century of sunken detritus.

A mammoth container ship shimmied by so close I could have thrown a baseball to a deckhand.

Images flooded my mind as I considered the last 153 years of Savannah’s history while the CSS Georgia sat brooding on the riverbed.

On the next barge, 24 archaeologists toiled in the stifling heat, soaked from sifting through piles of muck and tangled shards with shovels, rakes and firehoses.

As I wiped my brow, I empathized with them and the CSS Georgia’s sailors, who must have prayed for sea breezes but struggled to get funding for even a canvas sunshade.

This week archaeologists will wrap up the recovery phase of the project, which was many years in the making.

And though fewer unique artifacts have been recovered this summer compared to the mechanical recovery in 2015 — the pieces that have come up have led archaeologists to a new understanding of the vessel and its construction.

Stephen James, principal investigator, PanAmerican Consultants, Inc., pointed to a section of the east casemate where a gunport once stood. Using the known dimensions of the type of cannons and carriages used, James explained how archaeologists are mentally reconstructing the ship.

“This will give us some clue as to where the deck sits in relationship to the main deck or cannon deck of the vessel,” he said while gesturing toward a section of the ironclad’s armor.

James also pointed to the angle at one end of the east casemate and described how that was being used to determine the dimensions for the vessel’s hull.

He said this discovery was absolutely critical because no written or photographic records for the vessel’s size exist, no remnants of the hull have been recovered, and until this point archaeologists and historians have had to basically “wing it” based on inconsistent period lithographs.

In addition, Julie Morgan-Ryan, an archaeologist at Savannah District, said the team learned the wood backing that supported the interlocking railroad irons was comprised of two layers of timber versus three as they initially thought.

“All these pieces of the puzzle are still coming together,” James said.

As James and his colleagues finish their recovery and rebury the redundant artifacts this weekend, technicians at Texas A&M University’s Conservation Research Laboratory are working to preserve artifacts recovered from the last two years.

Though they continue to learn more about the CSS Georgia by removing concretions and in some cases producing scale models using 3D printers – like archaeologists recently did with one of the ironclad’s propellers – the future home of these artifacts remains unclear.

Archaeologists recently hosted several museum groups on the barge, including Friends of the Hunley (North Charleston, S.C.); The South Carolina Confederate Relic Room & Military Museum (Columbia, S.C.); The National Civil War Naval Museum (Columbus, Ga.); The Georgia Aquarium; The Coastal Heritage Society (Savannah, Ga.); and The South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology (Columbia, S.C.).

However, thus far, no official arrangement has been made to display the artifacts.

In the meantime, the public can get the most recent information on the CSS Georgia at the Coastal Georgia Center, Aug. 2, starting at 6:30 p.m.

The free event will feature portions of a soon-to-be released CSS Georgia documentary, along with a presentation and question-and-answer session with the archaeologists.

Visit our Flickr site for the most recent photos of the 2017 mechanical recovery.

For more information and background on the CSS Georgia:
CSS Georgia wrap-up (background and context)
Mechanized Recovery 2015 (video / article)
Coverage of first CSS Georgia lecture, June 2, 2015
An unexpected find
Divers unveil ‘little shards of life’
New artifacts – leg irons
False leads at a garage sale
Life aboard the ‘Mud Tub’
CSS Georgia’s parting shot (inerting ordnance video / article)
Beneath the barnacles – diving on the CSS Georgia
Educators turn lessons learned into lesson plans (Local CSS Georgia curriculum)

~ Jeremy S. Buddemeier, Corporate Communications Office

About US Army Corps of Engineers Savannah District

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Savannah District oversees a multi-million dollar military construction program at 11 Army and Air Force installations in Georgia and North Carolina. We also manage water resources across the Coastal Georgia region, including maintenance dredging of the Savannah and Brunswick harbors; operation of three hydroelectric dams and reservoirs along the upper Savannah River; and administration of an extensive stream and wetland permitting and mitigation program within the state of Georgia. Follow us on Twitter @SavannahCorps and on Facebook.com/SavannahCorps
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