Dark water diving & artifacts on the CSS Georgia

print of the CSS Georgia
Contemporary print of the CSS Georgia (pubic domain)

Archeologists are now working to remove small artifacts and map sections of the wreckage of the massive Confederate Ironclad CSS Georgia in Savannah Harbor prior to heavy lifting operations, expected to be completed by the end of this summer.

According to principal investigator Julie Morgan, an archaeologist with the Corps of Engineers, divers will be working in zero visibility conditions guided by an underwater acoustic positioning system and  “a navigation web of transit lines that helps the diver move around the site.”

Even so diving on the wreck will not be easy or safe. The ship was scuttled by the Confederates as Sherman’s Union forces marched on Savannah on the Georgia coast at the mouth of the Savannah River. The wreckage sat on the edge of the ship channel and has been struck by vessels and dredgers over the years. The protective covering of the upper structure, the casemates, were constructed of railroad iron. Over the years since its sinking, the wreck has become a tangled mess of iron and accumulated debris brought downriver by swift currents.

“The current is abated by diving at slack tide only.  All the divers have extensive experience working in black water environments and work only under the supervision of the Corps’ dive inspector.  Safety is the Corps’ top priority. No more than two divers will be in the water at once for safety reasons,” said Morgan.

effrey Pardee, Panamerican diver tender, examines diver James Duff's equipment and topside air supply during an initial dive event Jan. 22, 2015, on the Savannah River near Old Fort Jackson. Duff, a Panamerican diver and maritime archaeologist, used a rope to connect sections of the CSS Georgia wreck site scuttled on the river floor. A network of ropes connects wreck site artifacts and assists divers to navigate through the murky underwater floor of the Savannah River. CSS Georgia recovery is the first action begun under the construction phase of the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers photo by Chelsea Smith.)
Jeffrey Pardee, Panamerican diver tender, examines diver James Duff’s equipment and topside air supply during an initial dive event Jan. 22, 2015, on the Savannah River near Old Fort Jackson. Duff, a Panamerican diver and maritime archaeologist, used a rope to connect sections of the CSS Georgia wreck site scuttled on the river floor. A network of ropes connects wreck site artifacts and assists divers to navigate through the murky underwater floor of the Savannah River. CSS Georgia recovery is the first action begun under the construction phase of the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers photo by Chelsea Smith.)

Once the divers have completed mapping, tagging and recovery operations, the US Navy will recover heavy materials. “The archaeological data recovery phase is expected to last until early summer 2015.  Upon completion of that phase, the US Navy will set up on site to recover ordnance, large artifacts, the casemate sections and miscellaneous railroad iron using large mechanized machinery.  A lift plan that details where cuts will be made, placement of straps and slings, and type of lift structure will be developed for each artifact and casemate section in the next couple of months, ” said Morgan.

According to Ms. Morgan, earlier surveys have been used to plan the operation now underway, “The Georgia has periodically been investigated since the late 1970s as funding became available.  In 1979 a site assessment was conducted to determine the approximate site size and degree of integrity. Ordnance, small artifacts and two cannon were recovered in 1986 by Savannah District after the vessel was damaged by a dredge.  In-situ investigations were conducted in 2003 to fully map the site and document conditions.  Most recently multibeam and sidescan sonar surveys were completed in 2013 to document site changes since 2003.  The results of those surveys provided the base map for the current data recovery effort.  Also in 2013 a small casemate section was recovered during a test recovery exercise.”

It is now believed that nothing of the hull of the Georgia remains. The massive upper works may have crushed the wooden hull beneath it. This, coupled with teredo worm damage in the salty estuarine water, may have resulted in the complete disintegration of the hull. Morgan states: “Studies conducted in the 1970s thought that the hull was buried underneath sediments.  In the 1980s, it was thought to be underneath one of the casemate sections.  In both instances, it was never seen, only THOUGHT to be there.

“It was not until 2003 when Panamerican Consultants, Inc. conducted in-situ investigations and confirmed that there is no indication that any of the hull exists on the site.  This was verified in 2013 by the multibeam and sidescan sonar.  What happened to the hull?  It is difficult to tell.  It has been hypothesized that, if it were fairly intact, it may have been  recovered during the salvage attempt in the late 1860s-1870s.  Alternatively, it could have been badly damaged as a result of the salvage attempt and slowly deteriorated and/or was carried off the site by currents.   Regardless, there are no remains of the hull.  We hope that the edges of the casemate sections and any fasteners will provide clues as to what the hull was like.”

Given the presence of heavy silting and the resulting anaerobic environment, it may be possible that some heavy timbers, such as live oak frames, or the very bottom strakes of the hull, have survived. Whether or not this is so remains to be seen.

The Archaeology Hour asked Morgan about the disposition of any artifacts that might remain in the wreckage. According to Morgan there is no archival record of anything having been removed from the ironclad before it was scuttled. If the ship was abandoned in haste ahead of Sherman’s army, it may therefore contain artifacts.

“The archaeologists are currently recovering small artifacts from the wreck site.  No personal items have been found.  It is unlikely that we will find anything else due to the lack of sediments and the current,” added Morgan.

“The Corps has contracted with Conservation Research Laboratory at Texas A&M University to conserve the artifacts that will be retained for curation and exhibit.  All of the large artifacts, i.e., cannons and power plant parts, as well as ordnance, casemate sections and other small artifacts with unique or diagnostic features will be conserved.  There are no loan agreements in place at this time, but several museums of have expressed interest in exhibiting the artifacts.  Final decisions regarding the disposition of the artifacts will be made by the US Navy as that agency is held accountable for CSS Georgia,” Morgan said. The entire property of the Confederate States of America, especially its fleets and weapons, became the property of the Federal Government following the defeat of the Confederacy.

The Archaeology Hour hopes to broadcast an audio interview with Ms. Morgan in the coming weeks, followed a video segment later in the year.

 

The archaeology hour podcast can be found at:

http://archaeologyhour.podomatic.com

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