Ga. port deepening includes Confederate ship recovery

Divers wait for a containership to pass the wreck site of the CSS Georgia near the channel of the Savannah River on Thursday.

Divers and military salvage crews will spend the next nine months raising what’s left of an armored Confederate warship that’s been rotting at the bottom of the Savannah River for 150 years.

After years of planning, the Army Corps of Engineers announced Thursday that work has begun to recover the remains of the ironclad CSS Georgia. The ship was scuttled by its own Confederate crew to prevent its capture by Gen. William T. Sherman when his Union army took Savannah in December 1864.

The federal government and the state of Georgia are spending an estimated $14 million to raise the shipwreck. It’s part of a $703 million project to deepen the river channel so that larger cargo ships can reach the Port of Savannah. Before the inner harbor can be deepened, the shipwreck has to be removed. It’s considered so historically significant that dredging is prohibited within 50 feet of the wreckage.

The wreck lies in pieces beneath 30 feet of water where the river winds east of downtown Savannah. Only two big pieces of its armored siding remain intact, the largest being about 64 by 24 feet. Otherwise, the riverbed is scattered with artifacts and debris — railroad ties that formed the ship’s iron armor, four cannons, pieces of the ship’s steam engine, unexploded cannonballs and small fasteners — that will eventually be raised to the surface.

“It’s really exciting,” said Julie Morgan, the Army Corps archaeologist overseeing the recovery. “It’s taken a long time to get here. We’ve got just a little bit longer to go.”

In a military sense, the CSS Georgia was an ironclad flop that sank before it ever fired a shot in battle. The Civil War ushered in the era of armored warships. In Savannah, a Ladies Gunboat Association raised $115,000 to build such a ship to protect the city. But the 120-foot-long CSS Georgia had engines that proved too weak to propel its 1,200-ton frame against river currents. The ship was anchored off Fort James Jackson as a floating gun battery.

Archaeologists in diving suits will spend the next five months tagging and recording the locations of thousands of pieces from the shipwreck. They will be able to bring smaller artifacts to the surface on their own.

The big stuff such as the cannons and the intact sections of the ship’s armored hull will be raised later this year by a Navy salvage and a recovery crew scheduled to arrive around June. The Navy will also handle any unexploded shells and cannonballs that require careful handling to ensure they don’t detonate.

The largest chunk of the ship’s armored siding is too big to remove without dividing it into smaller sections, said Steve James, an underwater archaeologist working on the project who has seen the CSS Georgia’s wreckage up close. While the wooden hull has rotted away, he said, over time rust and accumulated sediments have basically fused its 24-foot strips of iron armor together.

“It’s not that fragile,” James said. “It’s heavy. It weighs tons and tons.”

Army Corps officials said it should take about nine months to raise all of the CSS Georgia’s remains. Work to preserve and catalog all of the individual artifacts is expected to take another year or more.

It’s unknown where all the pieces will end up. The shipwreck legally belongs to the Navy because the CSS Georgia is still officially classified as a captured enemy vessel.