Sunday, July 23, 2017

A trip to the CSS Georgia recovery site: Nine really cool things and a couple bummers for researchers, conservators

Clamshell prepares to lift mud (and possible artifacts) to deck
Spikes used to join armor components (Picket photos)

I couldn’t let a narrow window of opportunity close, so I drove most of the night to Savannah, Ga., to spend a few hours Saturday aboard barges recovering the last significant portions of the Confederate ironclad CSS Georgia. That on-site project will be completed in the coming days. Thanks to the Savannah office of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for having me on board. All photos by the Picket unless noted otherwise.

Protected by railroad iron

I finally got face-to-iron with two large casemate sections that were lifted from the Savannah River this summer (by the way, they are being placed in a different spot back river this weekend for safekeeping).

I still am trying to get my head around this innovative way of building armor when you don’t have more raw resources and manufacturing capabilities.

Sprinklers are used to keep casemate safe from corrosion

Jim Jobling, with the Conservation Research Laboratory at Texas A&M University -- which is conserving much of the CSS Georgia’s 16,200 artifacts -- said each rusted rail is 4 inches by 4 inches, 24 feet long and weighs about 400 pounds. The iron is backed by 8 inches of pine and another 12 inches of heavy lumber.

Archaeologist Gordon Watts, who has dived and studied the wreck site for decades, said there were at least seven patterns of interlocking railroad iron used to make the casemate in 1862.

Where did the ship builders get the railroad iron?

Two rail pieces, lower right, with tar used to stop leaks (USACE)

“They were likely to be confiscated,” Watts said – specifically from Northern-owned companies, including a line from Brunswick, Ga., to Jacksonville, Fla. The nephew of US Navy Secretary Gideon Welles came to Savannah after the war to try to recover iron and other material, he said.

The CSS Georgia was prone to leaking, from above and below, and crew members used tar, plaster and other materials to fill gaps in the armor. Experts believe the engine was in service at all times, to power pumps that kept the leaky gunboat from sinking.

“It was obviously a pretty miserable place,” said Watts.

Detailed drawings bring artifacts to life

Gordon Watts measures portion of casemate armor ...
... and documents the different patterns of railroad iron used for armor

Gordon Watts, a contract archaeologist from North Carolina, has produced numerous detailed sketches of CSS Georgia components, something I first noticed during a visit to the 2015 recovery operation involving U.S. Navy divers.

“If I draw it, than I have to think about it,” Watts said of each item. He said he can get more interpretation that way than from just observing mosaic images.

He points to components of engine (Picket photos)

Find of the summer: Engine cylinders

They are not exactly sexy, but two steam cylinders brought up by a grappling hook will tell a lot about the ironclad’s propulsion. It’s known the CSS Georgia was underpowered and thus became a floating battery near Fort Jackson to repel any Federal naval advance on the city.

Jim Jobling washes off engine cylinders, frame mount (USACE photos)

Officials don’t know where the engines made; it’s possible they were taken from another vessel. The cylinders were part of the piston system that drove shafts for two propellers (only was of the props has been found and brought up).

Watts said he is aware of two or three other Confederate vessels, including the Arkansas, that featured railroad iron armor.

Now there’s enough of the machinery – with boiler and shaft parts – to get a better sense of the power and speed capabilities of the ironclad. Jobling said propeller and engine data, along with photos, are being sent to the U.S. Naval Academy for analysis.

“We can then figure out how strong the engine was, how efficient the propeller was and figure out the size and weight it carried,” he said. “How underpowered was she?”

Gun port and end piece

Note openings near rope that were part of a gun port
Casemate end piece had angle at top (Picket photos)

Three fascinating sections of casemate headed for conservation in Texas rested on the end of one barge. Sprinkler water kept them protected from corrosion until they can be placed in tanks.

One was a portion of a gun port. Five guns, including 9-inch Dahlgrens and a 6-pounder, were recovered in 2015, but others were brought up earlier. The CSS Georgia could carry 10, but it probably carried fewer when it was scuttled in December 1864.

The end piece could be used in a museum exhibit that explores the design of the vessel. There are no surviving plans, and archaeologists are not even sure of the ironclad’s size or weight. Watts said evidence points to it being 45-50 wide at the beam and between 180 and 200 feet long. Officials said with five guns in service, a crew of between 100 and 125 was likely serving the CSS Georgia.

Buckets of artifacts

Wood roller with brass fitting. Its use? Not yet known
Piece of artillery grapeshot (Picket photos)

During this past month’s mechanized recovery, archaeologists have placed smaller finds in water-filled white buckets lining the side of one barge.

Crews this year, unlike in 2015 and earlier, have found very few personal items beyond uniform buttons and a couple bullets, but it was interesting to see what was in the buckets: Various CSS Georgia artifacts, including parts of a pulley/rigging, and pre-Columbian pottery that washed into the salvage site.

Clamshell, shovels and hard labor

A dozen or so archaeologists worked the hot deck of a barge on Saturday, using large fire hoses and shovels to go through hundreds of pounds of mud placed in separate bays by a crane.

Each bay featured a screen on one end that would trap possible artifacts as the high-volume water cut through the muck. On this half day, 13 dips of the clamshell were made (repairs on the crane reduced the haul); there were as many as 80 scoops performed on longer days.

Screen on right traps artifacts during washing
Zones used by grapple and clamshell device (Picket photos)

Will Wilson of Panamerican Consultants utilized USBL, a method of underwater acoustic positioning, to direct the crane where to drop a large clamshell device to pick up the scoops from grid squares.

The recovery operation also has used a large grapple to pick up bigger items from the river bottom 40-45 feet down.

Replicas made from 3D plastic

Jim Jobling with replica of propeller recovered in 2015 and since conserved

Jobling, Watts and Stephen James, lead archaeologist on-site for Panamerican Consultants, will speak at a Corps public event in Savannah on Aug. 2.

The program includes portions of a documentary, "Dredging up the Past: Recovery of the CSS Georgia Shipwreck."

Columbiad gun sight, but not the gun, was pulled up.
Replica of pre-Civil War artillery sword hilt (Picket photos)

Jim Jobling of the Texas A&M conservation lab has procured small educational replicas of some of the artifacts found in recent years. “I scanned the artifacts using an accurate laser scanner” and they were sent to a printer to have them rendered in plastic.

Dealing with recovered ammo

The last part of this year’s final CSS Georgia recovery will be the deactivation of artillery shells found in the muck. Thus far, a Brooke shell with an Archer fuse and a 9-inch Dahlgren round rest in baskets below the surface awaiting this operation. But more rounds could be found in coming days.

The CSS Georgia may have had 500 shells for the five recovered guns. But how many went down with the ship and are still in the Savannah River? Jobling said 99 were brought up and saved in the 1980s, 240 in 2015, and two thus far this year. All precautions are being taken.

… And a couple not so cool things

The Georgia’s hull is gone, eroded by time, dredging and destructive teredo worms.

That makes it extremely difficult to configure components. “If we had a hull, we could tell how things were arranged,” said Watts.

While finds in 2015 and this year have added to the CSS Georgia’s story, Watts said, the absence of the hull and other information may leave many mysteries unanswered.

(Picket photos)

Jobling, on a tour of the casemate sections, pointed to the myriad holes (above) left by teredo worms. Crews were asked to gain wood samples from the casemate for dendrochronology – to learn the age and condition of the trees cut for the job in 1862. But given the damage, they had to get samples from other CSS Georgia lumber.

“There was a lot of old-growth wood in Georgia in that time period,” said Jobling. “They were probably cut in early 1862 … she was built with green wood. They had to cork her and fill the cracks between the timbers.”

Sections of rusting railroad iron (Picket photo)

The ‘Mud Tub’ a winner after all?

A 2015 article by the Army Corps of Engineers details frustration among the ironclad’s crew, relegated to the back lines and on a vessel that was stationary, and residents of Savannah who raised money to build a ship that didn’t have much engine power. The lure of desertion and drinking were common on the CSS Georgia.

One woman wrote: “Our iron floating battery is a splendid failure. She has been taken down between the forts and they are obliged to keep her engines at work the whole time to prevent her sinking, she leaks so badly. The officers had a consultation, a day or two after she went down, to decide on the propriety of throwing over her coal to keep her afloat. During the long storm last week, she leaked also from the roof, so that there was not a dry spot for the men or anything else in the vessel, even their beds were wet.”

Gordon Watts takes break from examination of casemate

But Watts has a more forgiving view. The CSS Georgia was a valuable part of the city’s defenses for two years, in concert with Fort Jackson, torpedo mines, pilings and other vessels.

“When you get down to it, it was really effective,” he said.

Casemate section stays cool in summer heat. (Picket photo)

Friday, July 21, 2017

Sorry, you can't check out ammo from library

A Massachusetts librarian on her first day on the job came across live military shells from the Civil War inside her office. Gleason Public Library director Abby Noland told The Boston Globe she found the shells Thursday inside a box with a label explaining they had been examined by a munitions expert and could be live. She called police, who evacuated the library in Carlisle. • Article

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Shaw's sword found in family attic

The long-lost sword of Col. Robert Gould Shaw, the commanding officer of the North's first all-black regiment during the Civil War, has been acquired by the Massachusetts Historical Society. Shaw led the 54th Massachusetts Infantry into battle at Fort Wagner, South Carolina, in 1863, which was depicted in the critically acclaimed 1989 film "Glory." He was killed on the battlefield, and his body was robbed of the sword. • Article

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Getting on board with exhibits? Museums to get first-hand look at CSS Georgia recovery

So-called west casemate is brought to surface (USACE-Savannah)

Officials from a half dozen museums in the South have been invited to board a barge in Savannah, Ga., this week and explore ways to breathe new life into the story of an ironclad that guarded the city during the Civil War.

The invitees who have expressed interest in potential exhibits are the Coastal Heritage Society (which operates museums in Savannah, including Old Fort Jackson, near the wreck site); the Friends of the Hunley in North Charleston, S.C.; the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta; the Hampton Roads Naval Museum in Norfolk, Va.; the National Civil War Naval Museum in Columbus, Ga.; and the South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum in Columbia.

The U.S. Navy and the Army Corps of Engineers on Thursday will show off recent artifacts and two pieces of armor casemate from the CSS Georgia that have been raised this summer before the deepening of a crucial shipping channel.

They also will detail a 2015 recovery operation on the Savannah River in which several cannons, a propeller and thousands of artifacts were brought up for conservation.

This propeller has since been conserved (USACE)

The goal is for museums “to obtain a vision of what will be available for exhibit and the historical and scientific aspects of the Georgia,” said Robert Neyland, head of the underwater archaeology branch of the U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command.

The presentation is among the first steps for officials who are mulling whether to include the Confederate vessel’s story at their museums. There are all kinds of considerations -- from construction and maintenance costs, to whether such an exhibit would fit their mission and draw visitors.

Corps and Navy officials are hopeful some of them will get on board. They’ve touted different angles about the Georgia, which served as a floating battery off Fort Jackson. It never fired a shot on the enemy and was scuttled by its crew in December 1864 when Savannah was on the verge of capture. Previous salvage attempts and dredging left the boat in pieces on the river floor.

Belt buckle recovered from ironclad (USACE)

Potential exhibits could cover the unusual armor (railroad iron) of the CSS Georgia, mysteries of its design and construction, how and why it was underpowered, particular artifacts (including gun sights), its history, and what life might have been life for the crew (hint: long stretches of boredom in the summer heat punctuated by occasional drills).

“We are going to visit the CSS Georgia site for an update on their efforts,” said Kellen Correia, president and executive director of the Friends of the Hunley. “Our museum planning is at early stages so it would be premature to say what artifacts will or will not be on display.  Either way, we are excited to see their progress and learn more about this impressive project.

The National Civil War Naval Museum’s executive director, Holly Wait, and Jeff Seymour, director of history and education, will attend.

Leg irons likely used to discipline crew members

We're excited for the opportunity and hope that at least a few artifacts will find a new home here in Columbus,” Seymour said.

The Confederate Relic Room, which is sending a representative, touts its large collection of South Carolina battle flags and items associated with the state’s military history.

Joe Wade, curator of education, tells the Picket that the venue also has extensive records on blockade runners and the financial papers of Confederate purchasing agent Colin J. McRae. It has worked with the Friends of the Hunley on South Carolina’s Southern Maritime Collection, he said.

Surprise Dahlgren was lifted in 2015 (USACE)

Joseph Judge, curator for the Hampton Roads Naval Museum (one of nine operating under the Naval History and Heritage Command), said while the venue wouldn’t be sending a representative, “We have followed the activity surrounding CSS Georgia with interest and are examining the possibility of exhibiting some of the artifacts as instances of Confederate ironclad technology. The CSS Virginia was constructed across the river from our museum.”

“As with all museum projects, we have to address the questions of funding, exhibit space, etc. We are at the beginning of that process,” Judge wrote in an email.

The Coastal Heritage Society and the Georgia Aquarium did not respond to requests for comment. The society earlier this year said it might consider a permanent CSS Georgia exhibit, but had to weigh other factors, including funding, space and theme. Several Georgia-related artifacts are on display at Old Fort Jackson.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Longstreet (and fried chicken) on my mind: Road trip brings me back to Gainesville, Ga.

Entrance to family plot at Alta Vista Cemetery
Stones in back of Historic Piedmont Hotel list campaigns (Picket photos)

You know the questions: Who’s your favorite Civil War general? Or which do you find the most fascinating?

I don’t recall when I came up with James Longstreet. But something about the controversial Confederate general spoke to me. A man of seeming contradictions – adored by his soldiers, loathed by others for his postwar Republican politics and what they consider his failures at Gettysburg. He was a stalwart corps commander and defensive genius in the Army of Northern Virginia -- Lee’s “Old War Horse.” But in the last decades of his life he dared to criticize Lee’s strategy and spoke of national reconciliation, not exactly endearing words to Southern society at the time. While living in Louisiana, he led a militia that protected blacks from unruly white supremacists. 

Not long after I started this blog in 2009, I wrote two parts about his adopted home of Gainesville, Ga., and his rebounding reputation. I traveled back to Gainesville today. It was hot and sunny and a perfect time to revisit Longstreet sites in the North Georgia city about an hour northeast of Atlanta. The stops are organized by their chronology in Longstreet’s story.

ORIGINAL LONGSTREET HOME (959 Longstreet Circle)

A statue of a pensive Longstreet was dedicated by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 2001. He bought the 120-acre farm near downtown not long after moving to Gainesville in 1875. The general pruned muscadine vines on property that featured an old colonial-style home. The home burned in 1889, and the general’s wife, Louise, died a few months later. 

Among his Civil War relics lost to the fire were his Confederate uniform worn when he left the service, the sword he carried during the war, a highly prized sash presented him by Confederate Cavalry Gen. J.E.B. Stuart and spurs that he wore in the Mexican War, according to the Gainesville Times. Longstreet's great-grandson told the Picket that family members still have some of the general's surviving furniture and marble-top tables.

Today, a residential neighborhood covers most of the farm. On the edge of the small park is a grape arbor.

PIEDMONT HOTEL (827 Maple St.)

The Piedmont Hotel is the centerpiece of the Longstreet Society, which was formed in 1994 to honor the life of Longstreet, who died here at age 82 in 1904. The one-story building is a remnant of the imposing, 36-room Piedmont, which was torn down in 1918.

Longstreet opened the hotel in 1876 a couple blocks from the railroad, and he drew famous and everyday guests. He was known to give apples to children and help out former Confederate and Federal soldiers who stopped by. He lived in two homes a couple miles away.

The society uses the old hotel rooms to tell his story. One has artifacts and paintings. Another has period furniture from the time of future President Woodrow Wilson and his wife, Ellen, whose daughter Jessie was born in the hotel in 1887. The main hallway has copies of documents on Longstreet’s appointment to federal offices, including postmaster, U.S. marshal and minister to Turkey. A wooden chair is one of the few items that can be traced to the hotel.

Richard Pilcher (left) and Joe Whitaker

The real treasures of the site may be the volunteers who share stories about the general and his performance during the Civil War.

Richard Pilcher, former head of the society, said he grew up in the area and knew little about the general's reputation and abilities. That changed when he went to college and learned about Longstreet's defensive acumen. "Maybe he had amounted to something," Pilcher said.

Pilcher and Joe Whitaker said in recent years they hear less criticism, as the pendulum in military scholarship has shifted more toward Longstreet's favor.

In later years, Longstreet would travel to reunions and events, and others would operate the hotel. He was known to keep chickens and serve them fried and battered to guests (more about that later).

The well house was installed in early 2017.


Longstreet was 76 and a widower when he married 34-year-old Helen Dortch. He was living here at the time of his death. The house, across from First Baptist, is operated by a chiropractic and well center. Helen Dortch Longstreet lived a long life. The spry environmental activist even served as a riveter at the Bell Bomber plant in Marietta during World War II. She led the unsuccessful fight to stop the damming of the Tallulah River to form what are now known as the Georgia Power lakes. She had to sell the house to pay legal fees.

The home was part of a 2016 Christmas event in the historic district. Mrs. Longstreet converted the basement into one of the city's first Catholic churches. A member of the Hall County Historical Society told the Gainesville Times that the house is unique for its gold crown molding in five rooms on the first floor.

WHELCHEL HOUSE (207 College Ave., vacant lot)

In early January 1904, Longstreet, suffering from cancer, went to the house of his daughter, Maria Louise Longstreet Whelchel and her husband, Esten. During a coughing spasm, his old neck wound from the 1864 Battle of the Wilderness reopened, and he bled to death. His last words were, “Helen, we shall be happier in this post.”

The house is gone; now it's a vacant lot near a bank.


According to the Longstreet Society, the general's funeral was held in a county courthouse building destroyed by the 1936 tornado.

"The funeral is thought to be the largest ever held in the county." His remains were carried nearly two miles to Alta Vista Cemetery.

The procession included the Queen City Band, Candler Horse Guards, Governor's Horse Guards, Confederate veterans, family and friends.

ALTA VISTA CEMETERY (1080 Jesse Jewell Parkway)

Two Georgia governors are buried not far from several members of the Longstreet family. Longstreet’s remarkable grave marker is made of granite and cites his Civil War and Mexican War exploits.

Some 5,000 people attended his Catholic services in town and streamed to the cemetery. An aged veteran placed his gray jacket on the casket. Helen Dortch Longstreet erected the marker several decades after Longstreet’s death.

Interestingly, a U.S., rather, than Confederate, flag flies over the plot. And to reflect the family’s belief in reconciliation, the American flag is crossed over the Confederate battle flag on the marker. Great-grandson Dan Paterson of Virginia told the Picket today that the choice of the banner for the flagpole is “what the general would want.”

The cemetery contains the remains of Paterson's mother, Jamie Louise Longstreet Paterson, who died in 2014. He said the Longstreet Society is planning to name a garden at the Piedmont Hotel in her honor.


Chickens are big business in Gainesville. So it was no small addition to local lore when the Georgia Poultry Federation several years back claimed that the Piedmont Hotel was the first area poultry processor, albeit out of a hotel kitchen, in the area.

Joe Whitaker, of the Longstreet Society, said while there may have been fried chicken served first elsewhere, the Piedmont Hotel may have been the first to use batter. Here’s what he said during my 2009 visit: “I can’t prove that. But I won’t deny it, either.”

Guests included newspaperman Henry Grady, author Joel Chandler Harris and former Confederate Gen. Joseph Johnston. They enjoyed the fried chicken, green lawn and other amenities provided by the Longstreets.

Of course, once I left the hotel today after revisiting the topic, I had fried chicken on my mind. But I had stops to make and passed by wings places, Popeyes and Church's Chicken. And the Longstreet Cafe, which includes the battered-up bird on its menu, was closed for a couple hours.

I left town hungry, but satisfied with my time with Longstreet.