THOUGH THE Confederate Navy was massively outnumbered in the Civil War, they equaled the odds a bit through the use of major technological breakthroughs —some of which reverberated through the centuries.
Up in Charleston, for example, the CSS Hunley was the first submarine in history to sink an enemy vessel.
The Confederate Navy pioneered the first use of ironclad warships, widely dreaded by Northern sailors and precursors of the huge battleships of the 20th Century.
Like a bull in a china shop, a single rebel ironclad could by itself wreak havoc on a fleet of unarmored Yankee ships powerless to stop it, their shells bouncing harmlessly off the iron plates.
Savannah had its own ironclad, the CSS Georgia, scuttled in the Savannah River late in the Civil War to keep it out of the hands of Sherman’s troops.
But that isn’t to say the warship has rested quietly since then.
An ill-advised salvage effort in the 1870s used explosives to dislodge the remains, not surprisingly causing great damage to the ship’s structure.
As the river has been dredged deeper and deeper since then, changing current and sediment patterns mean that the shipwreck—now more accurately called “a debris field,” in the words of one expert—is spread out in open water on a shelf of ancient clay, essentially in plain sight to divers.
A buoy directly across the Savannah River from Old Fort Jackson has marked the remains of the Georgia for years, to keep other vessels away.
Cargo vessels have managed to avoid it, but at least twice—once in the 1960s and again in the 1980s—dredging barges squarely hit it.
Now, perhaps mercifully, the final waterborne chapter in the life of the CSS Georgia is being written, as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, with assistance from the U.S. Navy, has been budgeted $15 million to salvage as much of the wreck as possible in advance of the next large dredging project.
The most newsworthy thing going on these days is the salvage of the ship’s weaponry, a project which has brought a few surprises.
“We were surprised by the sheer volume of munitions still aboard,” says Russell Wicke, spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Savannah District.
Previous sonar imagery had shown only half a dozen unused artillery shells, Wicke says, “but so far we’ve discovered more than 50,” he says.
According to Wicke, the discrepancy is largely because the shells had fallen into crevasses left by dredging, hiding the shells from sonar.
While Wicke says “these are completely water-soaked black powder munitions” and therefore almost certainly harmless, “in the interest of safety we have to assume each piece is potentially dangerous. So that means the U.S. Navy has to handle that as part of protocol. The Corps isn’t trained to handle that.”
With help from the Navy’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group Two, the project is bringing up not only the shells for the Georgia’s cannon, but the heavy guns themselves. And there are a few surprises on that end as well.
There were a total of six guns on the Georgia, two of which were pulled up in the 1980s and are now on view at Fort Jackson.
“Of the four that stayed down there, we just now pulled up one of the smaller ones, a six-pounder,” says Julie Morgan, staff archaeologist with the Corps’ Savannah District.
The six pounds refers of course not to the cannon, but to the weight of each shell fired.
Two of the three remaining guns are enormous 32-pound rifled cannon, with the other being a smaller smooth-bore gun.
Another surprise, Wicke says, has to do with the aiming of the ship’s guns.
“We found out the cannons were mounted so they could swivel side-to-side,” he says. “Previously we thought they could only be angled up or down.”
While there are certainly many more well-preserved Civil War vessels, the CSS Georgia stands unique in the historical record in a number of ways, Morgan says.
“The CSS Georgia specifically used railroad track for her armor,” says Morgan. “We only know of three other ironclads that used railroad iron.”
Also of significance is the fact that a local civilian organization, The Ladies Gunboat Association, raised money to build the Georgia “and then literally donated it to the Confederacy,” Morgan says.
Most ironclads were retrofitted former steamships, but the Georgia was purpose-built from the keel up as a dedicated ironclad.
However, she shared the often-fatal flaw of most Civil War ironclads—a too-weak propulsion system.
“The main problem was her engine was just not powerful enough to consistently fight the current on the Savannah River,” Morgan says.
So with her devastating array of cannon, she was converted to an anchored floating fortress instead.
Morgan says it’s not known exactly what type or how big an engine the Georgia had, but the Corps hopes to have some answers soon.
“We’ve brought up one propeller and a few engine parts so far,” she says.
While Morgan says the goal is to salvage 100 percent of the Georgia’s remains, she agrees that’s often not completely realistic with marine salvage operations.
“We might find ourselves at a point where we attempt to conserve what’s still down there, for some future project to bring up at a later date.”
But for now, she says, the Corps is operating with the goal of bringing up all of what’s left of the ship and turning it over to research partner Texas A&M University for cataloguing and potential display.
Don’t fret, however—Savannah gets an altogether unique chance to see the operation in real-time, at next weekend’s Raise the Wreck Festival at Old Fort Jackson.
“This will be real fun for the whole family,” says Rita Elliott, a respected local archaeologist who also serves as Cultural Resources Outreach Specialist for the firm GEC, a contractor on the operation.
“You’ll be able to see the dive barge from the shore, right across from the fort. We’ll have binoculars set up,” Elliott says.
“There will be livestreaming video from the barge, and people will actually be able to talk back and forth with the divers several times during the day.”
In addition, there will be a number of booths set up from all kinds of vendors and groups with an interest in the CSS Georgia.
“This shipwreck is very important to the history of the Civil War in this area, and this is a great opportunity to engage directly with that history,” she says.