Category Archives: Archaeology In America

Last of the Riverboat Gamblers

“…Jack of Diamonds, Jack of Diamonds,

You robbin’ my pocket, of silver and Gold..”

(19th Century Alabama work song)


Steven Davis grew up on the Savannah River.  He was born at a time when the river was still important – the turn of the century when it was a major highway for just about anything headed for the port of Savannah, Georgia or back up to Augusta and beyond.  The railroads and the superhighways were killing the traffic on the old waterway and over the span of his lifetime, Steven Davis was destined to be a witness to the passing of this era.  He also became a part of the legend of the river.  To most who knew him, Steven Davis was a simple hand on a riverboat called the “Kathryn S” that ran on the river from Augusta to Savannah. He would tend the engine, tidy the passenger cabins, haul cargo on and off at places like White Woman’s Landing and Kill Devil Bend.  To a select few, however, he is still remembered as something more – the last of the river boat gamblers.


The Riverboat ‘Katie” – the Kathryn S would have looked much like this on the Savannah River
Stern wheel of the Kathryn S on the riverbank at Sandbar Ferry below Augusta Ga.

Davis was a tall black man – half African American, half Indian, with a palsied right arm and hand.  When the sun set on the Savannah and the “Kathryn S” pulled to the bank to moor for the night, the passengers and the crew would sit at a table in the big captain’s cabin on the second deck. By the light of kerosene lanterns they would drink whiskey and talk of cotton and politics.  When the conversation and the whiskey waned, out would come a deck of cards.

Davis was in his thirties when he began to crew on the “Kathryn S.”  By that time he already knew how to handle a pack of cards.  For most of his life he kept these skills a secret – a ploy that made him appear much less dangerous to the passengers who fancied themselves as skilled players.

The “Kathryn S” was a stern wheeled paddle boat built on the remains of an Augusta Canal barge in 1932 by “Gummy” Harrison and named for his wife.  Montgomery Harrison was the town’s only millionaire during the Depression.  The riverboat was an engine room, a galley and half a dozen tiny cabins.

The boat ran the river for more than twenty years under its Captain, Reggie Dales.  In the 1950’s Gummy sold her to “Big Roy” Simkins, another Augusta businessman. Big Roy ran the “Kathryn S” for thirteen more years, using it to haul general cargo and to pull snags from the river. By now the old riverboat was showing her years of hard use – her hull sagging at the bow and stern.

Big Roy took advantage of the flood of 1963 to drive the old riverboat onto the bank below Augusta.  When the flood was over, Simkins planned to overhaul her. Time passed and the work was never done.  The “Kathryn S” continued to sit on the riverbank under the watchful eye its only crew member – caretaker Steven Davis. Even though the old riverboat was hard aground, Davis continued to profit from the cards.

Throughout the sixties and the seventies, it was well known around Augusta that the game in town was the one that started every Friday night on board the “Kathryn S” down at SandBar Ferry.  Steven Davis ran a high stakes game that wasn’t open to just anyone.  You had to be a pretty well heeled businessman, or one of Augusta’s growing community of doctors from the Medical College or an Army officer from Fort Gordon’s Signal Corps to get an invite to the game.

By late Friday night, the air was thick with kerosene fumes, cigar smoke and the smell of the sweat of the early losers. Davis would coax his marks along with consummate skill.  The lightweight pockets were emptied by well into the night.  By Saturday, only the well-heeled players were still in the game. Over the next twelve hours Davis would coax them into staying with a pot here and there – but by dawn on Monday – most of them would wearily step off the side of the “Kathryn S” with barely enough cash to buy coffee and grits on Broad Street before starting their workday.

Davis always saw to it that once in a while a big winner walked off the boat.  These were the gamblers that spread the news of the game and convinced other would be players that it was honest.  Sometimes there was a sore loser.  If he couldn’t be convinced that Lady Luck had dealt him a bad game – Steven Davis would reach back into his pocket with lightening speed and brandish a small nickel plated .32 caliber pistol.  The only time his palsied hand held real steady – was when the little peacemaker was pointed at another gambler.  No one argued with Davis once that gun was in his hand.

Few people were ever close to Steven Davis. Once in a while, during those last years before he disappeared and when weekend long poker games were becoming a thing of the past, Davis would boast about his skill with the cards.  He would pull a fresh pack from the pocket of his denim overalls, break the seal, and shuffle. His hands would spin the cards out across the tabletop, usually five hands plus his own.  He would then describe each hand and how many cards each ‘player’ would draw to try and better it.  Then he would describe the hands again – all the time the cards were laying face down.  Players one and four have a short stake – they will only play a sure thing to conserve cash to ante up. Player two has two low pairs – he will raise to get a feel for the other hands being played.  Players three and five have a full house and a high two pairs between them. The dealer will match their raise to stay in the game – they will both think he’s bluffing. Player two will fold.  The game will go at least two more raises before three and five realize the dealer may have something.

Davis would then lay over his hand – a royal flush. Then he would turn over the other five hands – they would be exactly as he described them.

Davis did pretty well with his gambling from all accounts.  Each Friday morning he would send a messenger to a bank in Augusta to bring him $75.00, never more, never less.  On Monday that same messenger would carry back anywhere from $3000 to $6000 to be placed in four or five different accounts – Davis liked to spread his risk even when it came to banks.

Big Roy died some time ago and so did the money for the upkeep of the old riverboat.  As it fell into disrepair an aging Steve Davis was forced to move.  He disappeared from Augusta – and people figure he must be dead by now.  There are some who wonder if he was ever a cheat or a card sharp, doing as well as he did. Most people hope not – they would like to think that the last of the riverboat gamblers on the Savannah died standing pat.

Stern construction of the Kathryn S – exactly matches the drawings for Augusta Canal barges
Bow construction and cabin features for the Kathryn S from my field notes

North Carolina Wreck Puzzles Officials

The ‘early 18th century’ wreck recently discovered off the coast of North Carolina may not be what it appears to be. The wreck was discovered by Duke University biology researchers using Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute equipment to search for a lost instrument buoy. An early press release labeled it as early 18th century or possible Revolutionary period (a pretty wide span of time in any event). Examination of photographs from the site, beneath 6,000 feet of water on the continental shelf, tell an even more confusing story.

Partially covered octant lies beside a large ceramic jar. This would date the site the mid 18th C. (Credit: Wood Hole Oceanographic Inst.)
Partially covered octant lies beside a large ceramic jar. This would date the site the mid 18th C. (Credit: Wood Hole Oceanographic Inst.)

Bruce Terrell, chief archaeologist of NOAA’s Marine Heritage Program, told the Archaeology Hour yesterday: “We can clearly see what appears to be an octant in one photograph. Yet in other photographs we can see bottles that appear to have a form normally dated to the early decades of the 19th century. Obviously we have issues when it comes to dating the wreck.”

Terrell notes other questions raised by the evidence in the photographs. “There is very little rigging hardware to be seen. The hull structure of the vessel is gone completely but from the size of the ballast pile and the rigging hardware we can see it appears to be a very small ship; maybe 40 to 60 feet long.” This might indicate a Bermuda sloop or a small coasting schooner. Coasting vessels typically hugged the coastline and operated in shallow waters and riverine areas – this site is 180 miles out on the Blake Plateau.

The current information draws immediate comparisons with the wreck of another small coasting vessel found by sport divers in the Black River, South Carolina in 1971. This reporter spent a month working on the vessel in the 1980s and later on its reconstruction at the Georgetown Rice Museum where it is now on display. This vessel also appeared to be a small coasting schooner dated to the mid 18th century – and it also contained an octant.

Sir Isaac Newton in vented the quadrant in the 1690s, the octant appeared in the 1730s. Philadelphia inventor Thomas Godfrey and English mathematician John Hadley invented it simultaneously. The instrument enabled navigators to take sightings of both the sun and stars. It’s presence on the North Carolina wreck points to a mid-18th century or possibly earlier date for the wreck. The dating contradiction arises from bottles that appear in another photograph of the site. The shapes of the bottles appear to be typical of the very late 18th or early 19th century. “It is highly improbable that two wrecks are mixed here, “said Terrell. “This is not very likely in 6,000 feet of water.”

Ballast stone and brick (similar to the Brown's Ferry Vessel) and at left a late 18th-early 19th C bottle. (Credit: Wood Hole Oceanographic Inst.)
Ballast stone and brick (similar to the Brown’s Ferry Vessel) and at left a late 18th-early 19th C bottle. (Credit: Wood Hole Oceanographic Inst.)
Bottles have shape consistent with late 18th C date. (Credit: Wood Hole Oceanographic Inst.)
Bottles have shape consistent with late 18th C date. (Credit: Wood Hole Oceanographic Inst.)

Clearly, more information is needed from the site. It is likely that more research will be done as the site adds important new information to North Carolina’s maritime history. “I am not sure what will happen next, “ says Terrell. “The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is the Federal Agency responsible for the continental shelf and the decision on next steps will come from them. Hopefully an archaeologist will be appointed and a survey of the site will be completed.”

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Tricky, Sticky–and Dangerous


Tar, a by-porduct of gas production at the turn of the century. Source: good
Tar, a by-product of gas production at the turn of the century. Source:

Plus This:

A fused Confederate ball-if it's water tight-lit's live! Source: live
A fused Confederate ball-if it’s water tight-lit’s live! Source: live

It’s going to be very tricky. A river bottom near downtown Columbia, S.C., covered with Confederate era munitions dumped by the Federal Army in 1865. You might imagine that, being underwater for that long, there would be little danger involved in handling rebel grenades and shells and cannon balls. No so. In the 1970s divers found a similar dump behind the Confederate Powder Works on the banks of the Savannah River at Augusta Georgia. A lot of the shells were inert, the water had leached away the powder inside years before. Then again, a lot of them were very much alive—and even more volatile than when they were first made. Colonel Washington Raines, the man who built the Powder Works, was famed for the quality of his gunpowder. When such gunpowder sits undisturbed it ‘matures’ becoming more volatile over time. As the Augusta divers discovered, the powder inside the intact shells they recovered was still capable of exploding.


Ketchum grenade with Raines type detonator. Thousands were made at the nearby Augusta Powder Works in Georgia. Source:
Ketchum grenade with Raines type detonator. Thousands were made at the nearby Augusta Powder Works in Georgia. Source:

“We were totally stupid, “ one them told The Archaeology Hour (forty years later he still wants to remain anonymous). “We carefully cut one of the smaller shells open without cutting into the powder, we then made a small hole and got the powder out. We shot pictures of the result—it blew up like crazy!”

In the near future work will begin to recover the munitions in the Congaree River near Columbia. As if the danger of an explosion is not bad enough, there is another complication. Tar. Not only are the munitions underwater, sand and mud—there is also a two foot thick layer of tar over the entire deposit as well!

The river, the tar, sand, mud—and live shells. And it all has to be removed. This is going to be a good story! Scuba divers, probably seeking to repeat the finds of the Augusta divers decades ago, first discovered the ‘tarry substance.’ It was most recently reported to authorities by a wading kayaker. South Carolina’s Department of Health and Environmental Control decided the mess needed to be cleaned up.

Tar and pils were first discovered by divers and recently by kayakers. The environmental hazard required cleanup order by DHEC--and SCE&G stepped up to do the work. Source:
Tar and pils were first discovered by divers and recently by kayakers. The environmental hazard required cleanup ordered by DHEC–and SCE&G stepped up to do the work. Source:

The result is that responsibility for the problem has fallen into the lap of South Carolina Electric & Gas. Eric Boomhower, Director for Public Affairs for SCE&G, told the Archaeology Hour, “The tarry substance is consistent with coal tar created by manufactured gas plants that operated throughout Columbia more than a century ago.

“One of those gas plants, located at Lincoln and Lady Street, was owned and operated by the Columbia Gas Light Company.  At the time of closing in 1906, its production was replaced by the output of a new MGP at Huger and Taylor Street (the “Huger Street Site”).  Note that the Huger Street Site was operated during its operating history by the Columbia Railway, Gas and Electric Company (a predecessor to SCE&G), thus giving rise to SCE&G’s liability for that former MGP site.  In 1925, Columbia Railway Gas & Electric Company merged with the Broad River Power Company Inc. to form the Broad River Power Company.  In 1937, the name was changed to South Carolina Electric & Gas Company.   It appears that this particular deposit may have originated from the Huger Street Site. “

In accepting responsibility for the problem SCE&G is showing great corporate citizenship. They have hired environmental firm TRC Solutions out of Atlanta, Georgia to handle the decidedly dangerous clean up job.

“TRC’s primary job will be to do the archaeological recovery, they have done this type of work for us before in similar situations,” said Boomhower. “It should be understood though, that our primary concern is the safety of everyone involved.”

While the historical record states that this is the area where Sherman dumped Confederate munitions, Boomhower says that it is by no means certain that live ammunition will in fact be encountered. “If it is—if we encounter anything that has the potential to be live and dangerous—then the bomb disposal experts will immediately take control of the work.”

A further complication is that the Confederate munitions also constitute part of the state’s archaeological heritage. This brings in Jim Spirek, State Underwater Archaeologist at the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology (SCIAA). Spirek told The Archaeology Hour, “Historical research suggests this area of the Congaree River was one of several dumping sites of Confederate war materials by troops under command of General William T. Sherman following the capture of the city in 1865.

“Recovery of various Civil War artifacts in this location in the 1930s by the then mayor of West Columbia and later under salvage licenses issued by SCIAA in the late 1970s and early 1980s also provides archaeological corroboration of the historical record. A series of bores was conducted from the Gervais Bridge to the Blossom Street Bridge. The stratigraphy of the river in this area consists of bedrock buried under several feet of sand and mud close to shore with exposed rocks further out in the river, along with sediment filled pockets in deeper areas. The tar like substance (TLS) is approximately two feet thick at its deepest and thins out downstream.

“Presumably the Civil War-era and earlier artifacts rest below or perhaps intermingled with the TLS. More recent artifacts including hubcaps, beer cans, shopping carts, etc. are included in the upper levels of the site stratigraphy, or perhaps scoured in deeper due to periodic flooding.

“At the areas excavated to remove TLS from the river there will be 100% artifact recovery. Artifacts of historic and archaeological significance will undergo conservation treatment. Modern items will be cataloged and then disposed of. Plans call for the conserved items to be curated at the South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum, although some artifacts may be sent to other appropriate cultural institutions for display and interpretation.

In handling possible live ammunition, the ordnance experts will make the call on whether such items will be destroyed by safe detonation or preserved by being defused and rendered inert. These will then be among the ‘conserved items’ that Spirek refers to.

This adds even more complexity to the project. SCANA and TRC have submitted a plan to the State for the work. Spirek told us, “Various remediation scenarios were offered by SCANA at a public meeting held in Columbia on 21 March 2013. DHEC preferred the 100% recovery of the TLS by damming the river in three sequential segments. Recently, the US Army Corps of Engineers has asked SCANA and DHEC to reconsider the damming option and to prepare a revised remediation action. Presumably in the next several months SCANA will provide their modified plan to remove the TLS from the Congaree River.”

There is no word yet on what the new plan will involve. It is thought it will be a modification of the earlier “dam and dig dry” plan. In any event, watchers await with considerable interest to see exactly how this sticky, tricky and explosive project will finally be handled. Archaeologically–whether the project were done underwater or on ‘dry’ land or not—standard procedure would require artifacts (possibly cartridges, shells, grenades etc.) to be carefully excavated, photographed in situ, then delicately removed, cleaned and conserved. Whether this is done or not may be the case by case call of a live ordnance recovery expert working alongside the archaeologist.

The Congaree ‘tar’ project will be featured on an upcoming podcast edition of The Archaeology Hour with audio interviews and more background information.

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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.


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Pilot on Track for March

The Pilot for The Archeology Hour is on track as we schedule interviews with archaeologists and investigators as far afield as Egypt, Italy, Sweden. the UK and the US. In addition new segment producers (upcoming announcement) are working on news and features on archaeological travel, major museum exhibits around the world, archaeological volunteer projects and reviews of major new historical and archaeological books. Our first book will be “The Lost Papers of John Bell Hood” by author Sam Hood from Savas-Beatie and hailed as having major revelations on the history of America’s Civil War.

Planned for the pilot and upcoming broadcasts will be news direct from the archaeologist in charge of an exciting new discovery at Sheikh Abd el-Gourna in Egypt. There two archaeologists have discovered a complex of tombs beneath a smaller tomb found in 1887. The early explorer missed a maze of chambers and shafts designed to mirror the legend of Osiris, the Egyptian god of the underworld. Mila Sosa and Irene Morfini sent the last season completing a pre-disturbance survey of the complex, recording wall inscriptions, a statue of the God Osiris and the remains of numerous mummies destroyed and tons apart by early tomb robbers. In an upcoming interview, Morfini will discuss the upcoming season starting on October. This will mark the beginning of excavations inside the tomb complex and we will learn how the two archaeologists plan to proceed.

Irene Morfini: The Min Project
Mila Sosa: The Min Project

In the UK we will be talking to Vincent Drost, the Project Curator of the  Romano-British coin finds at the  Department of Coins & Medals at the British Museum. He is studying the Seaton Down Hoard – a massive cache of Roman coins found by a metal detectorist last year. The dates on the coins cover a hundred year period and were buried long before the Romans left Britain and viking and saxon hordes–which raises  many questions. Why were they buried? Who buried them. Why would they have been saved over such a long period of time?

Some of the Roman coins being studied, cleaned and evaluated by Drost. Source: The British Museum
Some of the Roman coins being studied, cleaned and evaluated by Drost. Source: The British Museum

In the US we will be looking at the recovery of the CSS Georgia, a Confederate gun boat sunk on the edge of the channel into the harbor at Savannah Ga. This is a daunting project. Over the past forty years the archaeologists with the US Army Corps of Engineers have dived on the wreckage to study it and gather information on its eventual removal. The wreck is mass of tangled iron and debris accumulated over the hundred and fifty years since it was scuttled by retreating Confederates.

The massive ship was built in Savannah with $115,000 raised by the “Ladies Gunboat Association.”  The hull was 120 feet long and its armor was made from railroad ties and a cladding of railroad iron. The 1,200 ton proved far too massive for its engines–so the Confederates was moored of Fort Jackson below Savannah as a gun platform. By the 1980s, when Archaeology Hour producer Mark Newell dived on the wreck it was a tangled mass of distorted iron and smashed lumber. “I would grade it as one of the most dangerous wreck dives in the Savannah River, “said Newell. “No wonder the Corps has waited until now to tackle it.”

The Corps will remove the wreck as part of a harbor and channel expansion project. The work will be under the supervision of Corps archaeologist Julie Morgan. Corps spokesman Billy Birdwell tells the Archaeology Hour, “We have begun to remove some pieces of the wreck and some loose material around it. The main work will take some time.” We hope to bring you an interview with Julie Morgan in the near future and will post video on our YouTube Channel.

The CSS Georgia as it looked shortly after its launch (COE)
The CSS Georgia as it looked shortly after its launch (Coe, Today).