The CSS Georgia is an ironclad gunboat built for the Confederacy in 1862. A group of like-minded women, including merchants' wives and others formed the Ladies Gunboat Society in Savannah during the War Between the States and raised funds from across the state for her construction.
Commanded by Lieutenant Washington Gwathmey, CSN, the CSS Georgia defended the river channels below Savannah, using her armaments to hold back an advance by Federal forces on the city from the sea. By some accounts, the CSS Georgia may never have fired a shot in combat. However, by other accounts she may have once fired on Federal vessels approaching the city.
The vessel was designed by a citizens' committee led by foundry owner Alvin N. Miller and constructed in Savannah. Suitable supplies of iron and other building materials, as well as labor were in short supply during its construction. The vessel was completed and found to be too heavy to be powered under her own steam through the tidal waters of the Savannah River.
As a result, Georgia spent her life as a floating battery moored upstream from lines of obstructions near the upper end of Elba Island by Fort Jackson. Her position and the river obstructions provided protection to the City of Savannah from a Union naval approach. The advance of General William T. Sherman's Union troops in 1864 caused Confederate troops to scuttle the vessel in the general area of where she now rests. In 1866, the ship's iron cladding was salvaged and the remaining wooden components destroyed by underwater charges. The bones of the ship sank to the bottom and into oblivion.
The planned dredging and deepening the Savannah River channel will adversely impact the wreck site, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In order to mitigate these adverse impacts, the site has been excavated by archaeologists and all vessel remains and artifacts will be recovered. The federal government plans to spend approximately $635 million on improving the Savannah harbor.
Several cannons have been found along with personal effects such as boots and liquor bottles. A Navy underwater ordnance disposal team has neutralized unexploded ordnance at the site. Since the CSS Georgia was an enemy vessel, it remains the property of the United States Navy.
A giant claw was used to dredge up artifacts from the bottom
As the mechanized stage of recovery began in earnest this week, marine archaeologists working on the CSS Georgia had just started to dig in for the long haul – anticipating tedious, 12-hour days of sifting through concretion-covered objects from the dregs of the Savannah River.
However, consider their surprise when the “five-finger” grapple delivered a 9,000-pound Dahlgren rifled cannon – previously undiscovered by several high-tech, multibeam sonar surveys – to their barge on September 22.
It was especially surprising since the first Dahlgren, which Navy divers raised July 21, had been misidentified as a different, smaller sized cannon by sonar.
At least one archaeologist, though excited, wasn’t fazed.
Jim Jobling, a project manager at Texas A&M University’s Conservation Research Laboratory, said he kept telling colleagues they’d find a Dahlgren since before they started diving in January this year.
Dahlgren gun being brought up
He said the Dahlgren debate arose out of a discrepancy between two manifests from the CSS Georgia. The original manifest listed two Dahlgren cannons; however, a later manifest, dated October 1864, didn’t list any. The vessel was scuttled in December 1864.
However, as archaeologists began surveying the vessel, they discovered different types of shells, including shells that would have accompanied a Dahlgren cannon, adding more credence to Jobling’s theory.
And despite being vindicated, now for the second time, Jobling didn’t gloat.
“I’m very, very pleased,” he said.
The area around the wreck was cordoned off to protect divers
Besides the big-ticket items like the second Dahlgren, archaeologists are recovering a plethora of Civil War minutiae – leather shoes, wrenches, ceramic bottles, an anvil – turning the tedious into a treasure trove.
“The range of artifacts that is coming up is staggering,” Jobling said. He added that the researchers, which include students working on their master’s degrees and Ph.Ds, are working from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., sifting through as many as 25 to 30 grapple loads each day.
“They’re laughing, getting filthy … having a great time. It is exhilarating,” he said.
And now that they’ve found a seventh cannon, the real question becomes, what won’t they find.