Tuesday, November 12, 2013

“To a Sailor’s Eye A Monstrous Creature": The Salvage of the CSS Georgia

Heather Cox Richardson

Last week the U.S. Navy began the process of salvaging the CSS Georgia. There were two Confederate ships that bore this name. One was a raider; this one was an ironclad battery moored before Savannah to protect the city. Confederates scuttled it in a channel of the Savannah River in
View from Fort Jackson of the buoy marking the wreck of the CSS Georgia.
December 1864 to keep it out of the hands of General Sherman’s advancing troops. Next year, 150 years after it went down, it will come back into daylight.

Although the CSS Georgia was placed on the National Historic Register in 1987, it had no great military significance. It might have slowed down the taking of Savannah; too slow to maneuver, it might not have. Indeed, in its twenty months of operations, the CSS Georgia never fired a shot. It shows up only rarely in records: there are no existing plans for its construction. We don’t even know how big it was; sources say anything from 150 to 250 feet long. It is barely mentioned in most histories of the Civil War. So why should anyone not deeply interested in the—admittedly very interesting—world of underwater archaeology care about this naval salvage operation?

The story of the CSS Georgia beautifully illustrates the relentless press of the modern world on even the most deeply held outmoded beliefs.

The CSS Georgia was nicknamed “The Ladies’ Ram” because Savannah women (organized as the Ladies Gunboat Association) raised much of the money to build the ship. They did so because they believed so fervently in their cause: the preservation of a slave system that had been outmoded by the modern world. They gave their all to that cause, and yet by the time the ship was launched in May 1862, the Confederacy was beginning to feel the pinch of shortages. Many of the women who had raised money for the CSS Georgia would lose their husbands and watch their children cry with hunger as the war dragged on.

Only twenty months after the women of Savannah watched the ship they had funded slide down the ways, they would hear it had been scuttled. Then, on December 22, 1864, General Sherman offered their city to President Lincoln as a Christmas gift. Within six months, the modern world would rush in. Sleepy Savannah would turn to heavy industry and the export of naval stores, joining the modern economy. In 1866 a passing ship struck the wreck of the CSS Georgia, prompting officials to mark it with a buoy. Two years later, the Treasury Department hired a contractor to dynamite the ship, gather about 80 tons of iron, and sell it in the building boom. Everyone forgot the CSS Georgia until another vessel dredging the channel for more economic expansion snagged the forgotten wreck in 1968 and tore it apart. More dredging in 1969 1970, 1974, 1982, and 1983 further damaged the site. Also in 1982, a ship dragged the USCGS buoy marking the site downstream, pulling a ten-ton anchor through it. In 1979 diving operations recovered two cannons and other ordnance from the wreck. Investigations in 2003 showed that the ship’s hull was gone. The needs of Savannah’s modern economy tore the CSS Georgia apart.

Now, finally, efforts to expand the port of Savannah for the requirements of the 21st century demand that the ship be moved once and for all.

The story of the CSS Georgia’s salvage is interesting in its own right. But I can’t help thinking of those Georgia women who raised the money to build the ship to support an outmoded way of life. Their dedication to a system that the rest of the world had left behind required tremendous sacrifice. . .and for naught. The modern world ground on, no matter what obstacles they tried to anchor in its way.

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