Savannah – Today was a day on which I indulged in my love of History. I spent the morning at the C.S.S. Georgia Raise the Wreck Festival at Old Fort Jackson. It was a wonderful way to the spend the morning – watching US Navy dive operations on the wreck of the Confederate ironclad Georgia, seeing artifacts that have been brought up from the wreck, talking to Navy personnel that have been working on the wreck, and hearing about the history of the Georgia. Fort Jackson was open to the public and their interpreters were doing demonstrations including the firing of their 12 pound Mountain Howitzer and the fort’s 32 pound gun. All of this was free of charge, an excellent way to educate the public about what’s going on with the Georgia. In addition, there were displays from other area historic sites and the Georgia Ports Authority. After all, the reason for the archaeological work on the Georgia is the deepening of the Savannah River for larger ships to get to the port.
The first display I visited was the Texas A&M University tent. They are experts in preserving shipwrecks like these and they had artifacts that had been brought up from the Georgia out for public display. I found a number of the artifacts fascinating. Among them was the handle from a Union bayonet; undoubtedly it was captured or scavenged on the battlefield at some point in the war and made its way to a crewman on board the Georgia. Additionally, there was a wooden tool handle that had been recovered and brought to the surface. It’s amazing that 150 years later, a wooden tool handle survived on the bottom of the Savannah River. A number of people working on the C.S.S. Georgia project mentioned that since diving on the wreck began in the 1980’s, something has changed in the river, allowing shipworms to become more prevalent and eat into the wood. It was also mentioned that more than one set of leg irons has been recovered; it’s not surprising given the desertion rate among some of the Confederate forces near the end of the war. Something had to be done to keep some of the crew members from deserting.
In addition to the Texas A&M, there has been assistance from the U.S. Military as well. Most of the services are represented with personnel from the Army in the form of the Army Corps of Engineers, divers from the Navy, and EOD personnel from the Navy and Marine Corps. Divers from the U.S. Navy’s Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit 2 (MDSU-2) and Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) Mobile Unit 6 (from NSB Kings Bay) have been working on the recovery efforts. According to Julie Morgan, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Archaeologist in Charge of the project, the ordnance dives were finished this week and EOD Mobile Unit 6 has returned to Kings Bay. MDSU-2 will remain in Savannah to work on bringing up more of the ironclad. The Navy had a display set up showing some of the equipment they’ve been using, including a remote submersible vehicle that could explore the wreck with sonar and cameras.
Earlier in the week, a 9 inch Dahlgren gun was brought up from the wreck. An inventory from the Georgia before its sinking didn’t list a Dahlgren on board, but some of the archaeologists and researchers thought one might be there based on some of the ammunition that was recovered.
I spoke with the Navy officers from MDSU-2 and learned a bit about the diving operations. They’re working at a depth of 38-40 feet, which isn’t that bad. The biggest problem facing the divers is the current. While working on the Georgia, the current is actually the limiting factor in how long they can dive rather than depth. They’re limited to just a few hours of diving a day, centered around slack tide, so that’s why the process is taking so long. At any time other than slack tide, the currents are just too strong to work against. Another problem is visibility; they can only see approximately 3 feet in front of them, if that much. The Navy officer did mention that one benefit of the current is that moved disturbed sediment away quickly, which sometimes helps visibility. It’s no surprise then, that GPS tracking equipment and sonar are playing such a large part in working on the wreck. They can track the divers and parts of the wreck by GPS and use sonar to not only map the wreck but image it as well.
With the ordnance diving completed, today’s diving operations were centered on the Georgia‘s condenser. Nothing was brought up from the wreck, but based on what she was seeing the archaeologist in charge said it appeared that they were probably water jetting clay away from the condenser. As you look at the barges from Fort Jackson, the front barge is the dive barge and the two white tents on its right side are the diver station and the back barge is the materials barge, where they are storing objects brought up from the wreck. While watching and photographing the dive operations, I also used the scanner I’d brought with me to search for radio activity from the barge. I came across them using Marine VHF CH. 81 for communications between the dive station (the two white tents on the front on the front, or dive barge) the security boat, and the tug Little Bully during preparations for the dive and while the divers were in the water (audio clip below). They dive in teams of two, with what appears to be a back up diver staying on the barge while the dive team is in the water. Each diver has an air supply and communication umbilical that is color coded. One is green and the other red and that’s how the divers are identified -Green Diver and Red Diver.
During the diving operations, the Festival had a TV set up under a tent where they were receiving video from the barge via satellite. At first, the system wasn’t working but they eventually got it up and running and we could see some of what was going on. Archaeologist in Charge Julie Morgan provided commentary at the tent and Michael Jordan, who is doing a documentary on the Georgia, provided commentary from the dive barge. He also came over later to give a talk on the history of the C.S.S. Georgia. DVIDS (Defense Video & Imagery Distribution System) was also on site taking video of the dive ops and the festival with a small quad-copter UAV.
I particularly enjoyed Jordan’s talk. He’s done quite a bit of research on the Georgia and provided some background on it as well as describing how it probably looked. It was built after a group of 22 Savannah ladies raised $115,000 CSA for its construction. There are no plans for it, so the best guesses on its dimensions are around 120 feet long, 50 feet wide, with interlocked railroad iron (which ran vertically, not horizontally) for armor because no armor plating was available. It probably had 10 guns on board. They were unable to build a propulsion system strong enough for it to be a mobile warship, so ended up being used a floating battery with the steam engine operating pumps that kept it afloat (it as built with green wood and apparently was not very watertight). The hull of the Georgia no longer exists, but parts of its armored top do and it is the only armored top of a CSA ironclad in exsistence. There are several hulls, but no other armored tops. Jordan takes a bit of a different tack on the success of the C.S.S. Georgia than others who have studied her; his conclusion is that even though she never fired a shot in anger, she was a success because she helped keep the Union Navy at bay for two years. Others have claimed she was a failure because of the lack of a proper propulsion system and because she was scuttled without ever taking part in combat.
Throughout the Festival, there were a number of aerial visitors. Most of them were of the avian variety, including a lot of seagulls, some terns, and a number of what were either Snowy Egrets or juvenile Little Blue Herons (I never saw them close enough to tell). Helicopters COAST GUARD 6516 (MH-65D, Savannah) and one of Chatham County/Savannah’s EAGLEs (MD-500) also flew over.
I mentioned previously that Fort Jackson did two cannon firings this morning. They fired both their 12 pound Mountain Howitzer and the fort’s 32 pound cannon. As always, both were fun to watch and it’s obvious the gun crew enjoyed firing the 32 pounder. After photographing the 32 pounder demonstration, I turned around to find that fellow ham Ken Griffin, W4JKG and some of his family were watching behind me. I was great to see another amateur radio operator at the Festival!
If you plan on going out to Fort Jackson to see any of the diving operations, be sure to schedule your visit with slack tide in the Savannah River, otherwise they won’t be diving. I also found them using Marine VHF Ch. 81 (157.075 MHz) to communicate between the diver station, Little Bully (the tug), and the security boat. If you’ve got a scanner, amateur radio HT, or Marine VHF HT, you can listen in and tell when they’re getting ready to dive.