By Dr. Alexis Catsambis
Archaeologist and Cultural Resource Manager
Naval History and Heritage Command Underwater Archaeology Branch
My work is unique. I am an underwater archeologist, part of a team actually, responsible for the management, research, preservation, and interpretation of the U.S. Navy’s sunken military craft. While there is no typical day for me at NHHC, a point that humbles me when I think of the responsibility with which I and my colleagues are entrusted, this week was truly rare. I was part of a team charged with one of the largest archaeological excavations of a maritime site that has ever taken place in the United States – CSS Georgia.
The Days are Long, the Work Rewarding
The recovery of the remains of CSS Georgia is a testament to the dedication of the DoD to the preservation of its submerged cultural resources and to its investment in facilitating economic development, in this case, the Savannah, Ga., region. It is rare to come across a series of stakeholders and partners who, despite differing priorities and roles in an operation, maintain the same dedication to conducting the recovery in a professional and pragmatic manner. Environmental parameters such as high currents and low visibility, combined with impressive vessel traffic, make the site a challenge to operate within logistically; the addition of ordnance and the presence of extensive remains of casemate sections which weigh tens of tons have necessitated the collaboration of dozens of people and machinery usually not encountered in archaeological projects. I feel privileged to be a small part of an operation decades in the making. Seeing the cannon recoveries earlier this week and knowing the last time they broke the water’s surface was during the Civil War was a stirring moment.
What Does it Take to Raise History?
As part of the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project, and following years of planning, the current recovery of the remains of CSS Georgia began in early 2015 in order to mitigate the anticipated disturbance of the site by planned expansion of the Savannah River ship channel. The project is a coordinated effort with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers-Savannah District, Ga., and South Carolina state officials, U.S. Navy and other stakeholders.
The site of CSS Georgia rests immediately adjacent to the main shipping channel leading to a major United States port. Vessel traffic, tide cycles and low visibility hamper diving operations, make the recovery of remains from the site particularly challenging. Adding to today’s environmental factors, CSS Georgia was as a floating battery and carried a number of guns and ordnance when she was sunk. Archaeological research and extensive documentation of the site prior to the current project revealed a large amount of Discarded Military Munitions located within and around the wreck site. Because of the sunken ordnance, it became evident early on during the planning phase that operations would require the assistance of U.S. Navy partners such as SUPSALV, EOD, and MDSU 2.
Following six months of archaeological documentation and recovery of hundreds of smaller artifacts, the current phase of the project utilizes the capabilities and expertise of Navy counterparts in the recovery of four cannon, casemate sections, machinery, and over 140 pieces of ordnance, which will be rendered inert prior to conservation. NHHC’s underwater archaeology role is to provide the necessary expertise to ensure the recovery is done to the professional standards expected of the Navy.
CSS Georgia was a Confederate ironclad gunboat that was built to help defend the city of Savannah, Ga., during the Civil War. Georgia was launched on May 20, 1862, and soon came to serve as a floating battery moored adjacent to Old Fort Jackson when it was discovered that she was substantively underpowered. On December 20, 1864, CSS Georgia was scuttled in the Savannah River near the fort in order to prevent capture by advancing Union forces. Salvage attempts were conducted on the site shortly after the war and then the vessel lay forgotten until partial remains were rediscovered in 1968 during dredging operations. Several archaeological surveys of the site have been subsequently conducted CSS Georgia was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1987.
What’s Next for CSS Georgia?
Recovered artifacts are scheduled to be delivered to Texas A&M University’s Conversation Research Laboratory for stabilization and conservation treatment. Over 500 artifacts recovered during the archaeological excavation have already been delivered to the laboratory; thousands more are expected. Already, the artifact assemblage represents ship’s fittings and gear, personal items, ordnance, and machinery; what else will be uncovered is a mystery. Once conserved, the artifacts will be accessioned and curated at the NHHC Archaeology and Conservation Laboratory and the Collection Management Facility in Richmond. The ultimate intent is to place portions of the collection on loan for display at regional museums in the Savannah area, as well as other interested qualified facilities nationwide, through NHHC’s artifact loan program. The artifact collection will not only help us learn more about this pivotal moment in our nation’s history but also serve as an educational tool to raise awareness among the public of our story as a people.
There are over 3,000 historic shipwrecks and 14,000 historic aircraft wrecks distributed around the globe that constitute the collection of sunken military craft that fall under the U.S. Navy’s responsibility. Many are unique… representing maritime graves, potential environmental or public safety hazards, repositories of state secrets, or markers of prominent turning points in our nation’s history.