Friday, June 10, 2005


Confederate ironclad wreckage may rise again


Atlanta Journal-Constitution
By Mike Toner
June 05, 2005

Archaeologists, with an assist from 21st-century technology, have gotten their first detailed look at Georgia's most notorious shipwreck — the best view since the Confederate forces scuttled the ironclad CSS Georgia in 1864 as Union Gen. William Sherman's army entered Savannah.

Detailed sonar scans of the wreck — the only way to "see" anything in the murky, 40-foot depths of the Savannah River — show sections of the ship's armor, as well as cannons, engines, boilers and propellers scattered across the river bottom off Fort Jackson, where it went down 141 years ago.

To everyone's surprise, however, there is no sign of the ship's wooden hull, which has apparently either rotted away or been eaten by shipworms. Maritime history buffs lament the loss, but the missing hull is actually good news for those seeking ways to save what's left of the historic hulk.

"We have the first definitive picture of what is left of the CSS Georgia and it's clear that the scale of the project is more finite than we expected," says Scott Smith, executive director of Savannah's Coastal Heritage Society.

"There's just not as much of the ship down there as we thought," agrees Jason Burns, underwater archaeologist for the state Department of Natural Resources. "There's a feeling that maybe we can bring up what's left of it."

Several developments, in fact, have aligned to improve the chances that the remains of the CSS Georgia will see daylight again and eventually be placed on public exhibition. Because the wreck, which is officially designated as both a national historic place and a hazard to navigation, lies in the path of the planned $262 million Savannah harbor expansion, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers must consider ways to preserve it.

The harbor expansion calls for dredging a passing channel for ships in the very spot where the CSS Georgia now lies. Earlier dredging, which gouged 3-foot grooves at the site, is already blamed for some of the wreck's deterioration, so officials say leaving the remaining wreckage on the bottom in harm's way is unacceptable.

"It's very clear that the dredging in the past has damaged the wreck and that it is now undergoing demolition by neglect," says Smith. "If they build the passing channel, the Georgia will have to go. It's inevitable that the vessel needs to be recovered."

Original estimates of the cost of salvaging and conserving the ironclad ranged as high as $13.5 million. Now that it is clear there is less of the wreck than once thought, Smith says raising the key components — armor, cannons and propulsion system — might cost only $4 million or so.

"It will still be a very expensive project, but we are recommending archaeological salvage," says Stephen James of Pan American Consultants, the Memphis firm that headed a $375,000 survey of the site for the Corps.

Hope for the recovery of the remains of the Georgia — known as the "savior of Savannah" for its role in keeping the Union Navy away from the city in 1863 and 1864 — has prompted the city of Savannah to reserve a place for its exhibition in its new 25-acre Battlefield Park Heritage Center.

Smith says Civil War buffs eager to see something as rare as a Confederate ironclad — one of four built in Savannah — will bring an estimated $4 million in tourist expenditures to the city annually.

It will take years to salvage and preserve the massive artifacts. But Smith says that if the Georgia can be conserved at the Charleston Navy Yard laboratory currently caring for the previously salvaged Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley, the artifacts could be ready for exhibition in six or seven years.


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