Divers begin recovery of Civil War ironclad before deepening of channel

Divers begin recovery of Civil War ironclad
Divers begin recovery of Civil War ironclad

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Divers begin recovery of Civil War ironclad 01:08

Story highlights

  • $706 million harbor deepening officially begins in Savannah, Georgia
  • A Civil War ironclad must be moved so the shipping channel can be deepened
  • The CSS Georgia never fired a shot in anger during the Civil War

(CNN)The deepening of the shipping channel in Savannah, Georgia, won't be dredging up just mud and sand.

It will be raising up a link to the past: an ironclad that protected the city during the Civil War until the vessel met its undignified demise.
For about the next nine months, divers will be working to bring up the CSS Georgia, piece by rusted piece, from nearly 40 feet down in the Savannah River.
    The $706 million harbor deepening officially began Thursday with speeches and the firing of an old cannon at Old Fort Jackson near the wreck site.
    The removal of the CSS Georgia is necessary for the state and federal project, which will see the channel go from 42 to 47 feet so massive cargo container ships can use the port without relying on the tide.
    While some material from the Confederate vessel was recovered after the war, four artillery pieces, parts of the propeller and propulsion system, a boiler and two casemates, which housed the artillery pieces, remain in the swift, dark waters. One of the casemates is huge: 68 feet by 24 feet.
    "She is really in large sections scattered throughout the bottom down there," Julie Morgan, archaeologist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Savannah, told CNN affiliate WSAV.
    The CSS Georgia didn't have enough power to maneuver and effectively trade artillery rounds with any enemy vessels that might approach from the Atlantic Ocean. Instead, the vessel became a stationary floating battery, bristling with artillery pieces.
    The Yankees refused to take on the CSS Georgia or other nearby defense obstructions.
    The CSS Georgia won the battle, but lost the war: The vessel was scuttled in December 1864 shortly before Union forces took Savannah and presented the city to President Abraham Lincoln as a Christmas present. The shipwreck has rested in the river since, rarely disturbed and having weathered the indignity of being hit during dredging a couple of times over the years.
    Recovery of the ironclad will cost between $14 million and $15 million, Corps officials said.
    Contract divers have been at the site and are first mapping, tagging and putting a recovery grid in place. A network of ropes connects wreck site artifacts and helps divers navigate the river floor.
    They will be recovering small artifacts, such as fasteners or small personal items.

    Divers will need to be careful

    The second phase, expected to begin in May or June, will be the recovery of the large pieces. U.S. Navy and other divers will take special care because of the possibility of live ammunition and powder.
    Gordon Watts of Panamerican Consultants told affiliate WTOC that in at least the first phase, only one diver will be underwater at a time.
    "For every person we have on the bottom, there's four more people up on the surface that are tending him, talking to him and being sure that whatever he is doing is safe," said Watts.
    Archaeologists have the challenge of preserving portions of the CSS Georgia through chemical and other means, making her iron stable so the remains one day can be displayed. Conservation of selected artifacts and parts of the CSS Georgia will be done at Texas A&M University and will take about two years to complete.
    The remains of the CSS Georgia may answer some mysteries, including its dimensions and the manner of construction. The casemates were made of railroad iron. The vessel could handle 10 guns, though fewer were onboard when it was destroyed. There are no known blueprints for the ironclad, which was produced in Savannah in 1862 as part of a defensive naval squadron.
    Former U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston of Georgia, speaking at Thursday's kickoff, said the harbor deepening is important for the state's economy, jobs and recognition of its history.
    While officials have made no determination of where CSS Georgia artifacts may eventually reside, Kingston believes they should stay in Savannah, perhaps at Old Fort Jackson.
    "We need it to stay here. It will help Savannah in terms of tourism. It will help tell our story. It will enhance our reputation from an historical viewpoint. We need to make sure it does stay local," he said, reported WSAV.
    Besides deepening the channel of the Savannah River, the Corps will extend the shipping lane an additional 7 miles in the Atlantic Ocean off Tybee Island.
    On the river-based portion, the Corps will be installing a dissolved oxygen injection system to protect marine life.