Go on and raise the CSS Georgia… or not?

This story has made the rounds in the last four or five days:

Civil War Shipwreck in way of Ga. port project

SAVANNAH, Ga. — Before government engineers can deepen one of the nation’s busiest seaports to accommodate future trade, they first need to remove a $14 million obstacle from the past – a Confederate warship rotting on the Savannah River bottom for nearly 150 years.

Confederate troops scuttled the ironclad CSS Georgia to prevent its capture by Gen. William T. Sherman when his Union troops took Savannah in December 1864. It’s been on the river bottom ever since.

Now, the Civil War shipwreck sits in the way of a government agency’s $653 million plan to deepen the waterway that links the nation’s fourth-busiest container port to the Atlantic Ocean. The ship’s remains are considered so historically significant that dredging the river is prohibited within 50 feet of the wreckage.

So the Army Corps of Engineers plans to raise and preserve what’s left of the CSS Georgia. The agency’s final report on the project last month estimated the cost to taxpayers at $14 million. The work could start next year on what’s sure to be a painstaking effort.

And leaving the shipwreck in place is not an option: Officials said the harbor must be deepened to accommodate supersize cargo ships coming through an expanded Panama Canal in 2014 – ships that will bring valuable revenue to the state and would otherwise go to other ports.

Underwater surveys show two large chunks of the ship’s iron-armored siding have survived, the largest being 68 feet long and 24 feet tall. Raising them intact will be a priority. Researchers also spotted three cannons on the riverbed, an intact propeller and other pieces of the warship’s steam engines. And there’s smaller debris scattered across the site that could yield unexpected treasures, requiring careful sifting beneath 40 feet of water.

“We don’t really have an idea of what’s in the debris field,” said Julie Morgan, a government archaeologist with the Army Corps. “There could be some personal items. People left the ship in a big hurry. Who’s to say what was on board when the Georgia went down.”

Read more: Civil War shipwreck in way of Ga. port project | Aiken Standard
Under Creative Commons License: Attribution

Normally I’d have posted something about this on the Civil War Navy Sesqui blog. But my opinions about the situation are better voiced on a blog with just my name on the masthead. I’m somewhat acquainted with the CSS Georgia, from back in my Low Country service days. Mostly just conversing with Corps of Engineers folks when our respective projects crossed paths.

Regarding the ship’s situation, we should first consider the ironclad, no matter how historic it is, has not sat undisturbed over the years. It’s been dynamited, salvaged (partially at least), and dredged; and only in recent decades marked for protection. So we are not talking about a pristine ship waiting for recovery. And as far as we know there are no human remains in the wreck. The crew stepped off… in a hurry… when they scuttled the ironclad battery. So some considerations that might lead us to cautious approaches (at other sites) are not in play here.

I support recommendations made in 2007 in a report for the Corps of Engineers. In short, because of the disturbance the best alternative is an “archeological salvage” of the ship. The recovery should be systematic and as complete as technology allows. As the news article points out, any recovery must proceed slowly. Yes, there are still shells down there, possible still charged. But more importantly, when it comes to these kind of recoveries, speed often leads to mistakes (as Ed Bearss says, we’ve learned a lot about how to recover an ironclad since the days the USS Cairo came out of the Yazoo in pieces).

However, pressure is on to open the channel, given a larger generation of ships designed for an expanded Panama Canal. Yes, Savannah is more than just a place to eat Paula Dean’s cooking. The port is a major trans-shipping hub. Eventually, I predict, despite any concerns for historical artifacts or environmental impacts, the channel improvement project will go forward. There’s enough push behind the project to see it through. So better the artifacts are recovered.

But keep in mind similar port improvement projects are up for review all along the Gulf and East Coasts. The dynamic of crowded West Coast ports and the eastern US markets will bring pressure to enlarge facilities. Many ports elsewhere on the East Coast have similar historical and environmental sensitivities. So what happens when someone proposes dredging up the USS Tecumseh?

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

One thought on “Go on and raise the CSS Georgia… or not?

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