A team of Navy divers has started the historic salvage of a Civil War ironclad — and dredged up a bigger challenge than expected.
Mobile Diving and Salvage Company 23 deployed June 22 to Savannah, Georgia, to free the Confederate States Ship Georgia from the bed of the Savannah River. That is about three weeks later than originally planned — a delay caused when the Explosive Safety Survey conducted by the Army Corps of Engineers found more unexploded ordnance than anticipated.
“The number of projectiles to be recovered and inerted has significantly increased from six to 72,” said Lt. Liza Dougherty, spokeswoman for Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group 2. “The Naval History and Heritage Command desires to conserve as many of these items as possible due to their rarity and intrinsic historical value.”
A 20-man team led by Chief Warrant Officer 3 Jason Potts, commander of MDSC-23, will remove all unexploded ordnance from the Savannah riverbed. Explosive ordnance disposal divers from Mobile Unit 6 Detachment, Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, Georgia, will place the ordnance in handling fixtures specially designed for this mission, then turn it over to Marine Corps EOD technicians.
Potts’ team will then salvage the smaller, more manageable artifacts such as forward and aft armor casements; engine remnants including boilers, shafts and propellers; and four cannons. It will conclude with removal of armor plating. They expect to finish the salvage work by September.
A specialized rigging plan and purpose-built handling fixture was developed to safely salvage each artifact. The pieces are 35 to 50 feet deep, relatively shallow for a Navy diver, but some are half buried in the muddy riverbed. That means the “bottom work” will require underwater jetting, vacuum and pumping systems.
But the work serves more than a historic purpose. The wreckage is on the edge of a shipping channel that local officials want to expand. Divers will contend with strong currents and debris. Navy Meteorology and Oceanography will identify periods of slack water to maximize efficiency and safety.
The CSS Georgia was built in 1862 in Savannah. Original plans do not exist, so historians have little more than contradictory contemporary accounts on which to rely. But era engravings as well as eyewitness descriptions suggest the warship was 160 feet in length, with a beam of 55 feet and a 10-foot draft. A single smokestack projected from the top. A double layer of interlocked railroad iron weighing more than 1,500 tons was fixed atop 15 inches of solid timber and covered with cement filled with iron filings. The 24-foot iron walls rested at a 45-degree slope.
The ship was scuttled on Dec. 20, 1864, as Gen. William T. Sherman’s Union troops seized the city she was built to protect. Its watery grave is roughly five miles from Savannah, off Old Fort Jackson on the north edge of the Savannah Harbor navigation channel.