May 28 Lecture Highlights Tough Working Conditions on Ironclad Wreck
From the Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division
The South will rise again – just one piece at a time – as U.S. Navy divers from Mobile Diving Salvage Unit (MDSU-2) work to free parts of the Confederate ironclad Georgia from the murky, muddy waters of the Savannah River channel.
The Navy divers will work with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) June 1-July 20 as part of the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project, which will deepen the channel from 42 to 47 feet. Part of that project requires the recovery of the ironclad which lies in the path of future dredging.
MDSU-2 will bring up the ship’s armor systems, steam engine components and all her weapons, including four cannons and as many as 50 projectiles, such as rifle shells or cannon balls.
It is a mission that will highlight the skills of Navy divers – quite befitting since 2015 is the Year of the Military Diver.
“This is what we live for; it’s what we do day in and day out. When it comes to mobile diving, salvage, underwater ship husbandry and force protection, these guys are more proficient than any dive team in the Navy right now,” said Chief Warrant Officer Jason Potts, who leads Mobile Diving Salvage Company 23.
They won’t, however, be the only military personnel involved. Once the weapons are brought onshore, Navy Explosive Ordnance Disposal technicians from EOD Mobile Unit 6 Shore Detachment King’s Bay, Ga., will assist in the recovery, and Marine Corps EOD techs will get the ordnance to an offsite location.
Overseeing the operation will be civilian archaeologists from the Underwater Archaeology Branch of the Naval History and Heritage Command, which has been tracking CSS Georgia’s progress since its first excavation dive in the fall of 2013.
“The CSS Georgia recovery project is one of the more interesting projects NHHC underwater archaeologists are undertaking,” said UA branch head Robert Neyland, Ph.D. “The Georgia will be the only Confederate ironclad to be recovered and preserved.”
Neyland was among those who attended the “test” excavation in Nov. 2013 and was the project director and chief archaeologist on the recovery team for Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley.
During the 2013 excavation, it was “revealed the wooden hull has been lost over time due to current, erosion and previous salvage activities,” Neyland said, leaving behind “a substantial amount of armor made from railroad iron, cannon, ordnance.”
Other artifacts recovered have revealed a glimpse into the design and operation of the ship as well as life onboard, he added.
Apparently it wasn’t very pleasant.
It “was an extremely hostile environment for the crew who had to work in engine rooms under hellish heat and humidity,” Neyland explained. “The discovery of numerous sets of leg irons highlights these harsh conditions that led sailors to desert. The ship never saw action, which also leads one to believe boredom added to the crew’s discomfort.”
Some of those artifacts will be featured during a free lecture the week before the divers begin their work. The lecture will be held at 7 p.m. May 28 at the auditorium of the Savannah History Museum, 303 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Savannah, Ga. The guest speakers are two of the lead archaeologists involved in preserving the ship’s artifacts: Steven James, M.A., with Panamerican Consultants, a principal investigator on the project, and Gordon Watts, PhD., of Tidewater Atlantic Research, co-principal investigator.
Topics for the lecture will include the ship’s construction, since there are no blueprints on how the ship was built. The lecture will also discuss life aboard the ironclad, as well as how the recovered artifacts will be preserved. The museum will be open at no charge from 6-7 p.m. and light refreshments will be served in the lobby.
The lecture, which is being sponsored by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Savannah District, is being hosted by the Coastal Heritage Society. It is the first of eight public outreach efforts focused on CSS Georgia’s recovery, which is expected to cost the Corps of Engineers up to $14 million. The Corps of Engineers works with the Conservation Research Laboratory at Texas A&M University.
CSS Georgia was built and commissioned in 1863 to protect the river channels below Savannah and Fort Jackson during the Civil War. The ironclad, however, lacked effective locomotion, so she was used mostly as a floating battery. On Dec. 21, 1864, Georgia was scuttled to prevent the ship from falling into the hands of the rapidly advancing Union army led by Gen. William T. Sherman.
After 104 years nestled in the muddy bottom of the Savannah River, the wreck was discovered in 1968 during dredging operations of the channel. Some items were removed during the 1980s. Located on U.S. Navy property, the site was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1987, according to the U.S. Navy’s Supervisor of Salvage and Division (SUPSALV), part of Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA).
When the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project threatened CSS Georgia’s remains, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers stepped in to oversee its excavation under the National Historic Preservation Act. The multi-phase operation began in November 2013 with an initial excavation of a 65-square-foot portion of the upper deck structure with iron to determine the condition of the hull material. From there, a plan to recover and relocate historic artifacts was mapped out, with MDSU-2 providing underwater survey, rigging and topside support.
NHHC’s Underwater Archaeology Branch will validate the redeposit and reburial of sections of the ship below water in a back channel area so it can be preserved and protected should funding later come available to preserve and display CSS Georgia.
“NHHC is the federal owner of the wreck and its artifacts and is working with the USACE-Savannah District and State of Georgia to preserve the ship remains and artifacts and make these available for exhibit and interpretation,” Neyland said. “The NHHC mission fosters United States naval heritage and the lessons learned from that history to the current Navy and the American public.”
To follow the project, visit http://1.usa.gov/1G6S2Hn