Raising the CSS Georgia a maritime coup for the state

The CSS Georgia, the infamous Civil War Ironclad scuttled by its own crew in 1864, will soon be raised from the depths of the Savannah River.

Armed with $14.5 million, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will begin hauling up what remains of Georgia’s most famous shipwreck, possibly by year’s end. It could be 2020, though, before the Georgia is put on display and the state finally joins its neighbors with a maritime museum of its own.

Confederate women’s groups across Georgia helped raise $115,000 to build the ship to protect Savannah from Union forces. The 120-foot long Georgia, with 10 gun ports, was wrapped in iron. The ship’s impenetrable skin, though, proved its downfall.

Its engines were too weak to propel the 1,200-ton vessel through Savannah River currents, so it was anchored off Fort Jackson and never fired a shot in anger. The Georgia, variously described as a “mud tub” and a “nondescript marine monster,” was sunk by its crew as Union forces advanced on Savannah in December 1864.

Scavengers dynamited the ship two years later and hauled up 80 tons of iron. Various river dredgings and deepenings over the next century further damaged the moldering Georgia.

“It is not a pristine wreck; it’s been hit several times,” said Julie Morgan, a corps archaeologist in Savannah. “Imagine a piece of paper and you tear it in half. A jagged tear. There’s a dredge scar through the middle of the site.”

» MAP: Learn more about Georgia's major shipwrecks

A 1986 excavation uncovered two cannons and a number of cannon balls now on display at Old Fort Jackson. A year later, the wreck was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Divers surveying the wreck in 2003 discovered two large, armor-sided pieces; three cannons; the propeller; bits of engine; and other debris scattered at a depth of 40 feet.

The corps and the state of Georgia await final approval from Washington to deepen the Savannah River by five feet. The nearly $700 million project includes $14.5 million to salvage the ship’s remains, catalog the artifacts and preserve the iron and wood pieces that have remained under water for 150 years.

Morgan says it could take five years to stabilize, via electrolysis, the ship’s large iron casemates.

The corps has set aside $21,000 for annual maintenance of the CSS Georgia. The ship, still classified as a captured enemy vessel, legally belongs to the U.S. Navy, which will decide if, and where, it should be displayed.

“Definitely, since it was built in Savannah, we would like to see it exhibited in Savannah,” Morgan said.

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