USACE Savannah District completes CSS Georgia recovery

Published Dec. 13, 2021
Confederate ironclad gunboat CSS Georgia steams near Fort Jackson in the Savannah River Dec. 1862.

Confederate ironclad gunboat CSS Georgia steams near Fort Jackson in the Savannah River Dec. 1862.

SAVANNAH, GA. – After years of observation, recovery, and careful conservation, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Savannah District completed the archaeological data recovery of the CSS Georgia, a Confederate ironclad gunboat scuttled in the Savannah River near Fort Jackson during the Civil War, this month.

The remaining artifacts were transported to Naval History and Heritage Command in Washington, D.C. where they are being processed for long-term curation. The Navy owns the Georgia which is designated a captured enemy vessel.

“We were able to recover much of the vessel from 2015 to 2017 and have been working to conserve the historical artifacts we found since then,” said Andrea Farmer, Savannah District archaeologist. “Removing the Georgia from the river was important, not only for preserving the archaeological record, but also to ensure its safety during the district’s Savannah Harbor Expansion Project.”

The Savannah District was required under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act to mitigate adverse effects on historic properties, in this instance through conducting the data recovery of the CSS Georgia prior to harbor expansion construction activities at the wreck site.

Data recovery efforts began in January 2015 when archaeologists began mapping the wreck site and recovering small artifacts.  The Corps recovered the vessel remains and associated artifacts to avoid impacting them during inner harbor dredging as part of the SHEP.

“For over 150 years, the CSS Georgia has resided in the Savannah River and the new channel design for SHEP required that we recover the vessel in order to complete the deepening in that reach of the harbor,” said Spencer Davis, Savannah District senior project manager. “The recovery of the CSS Georgia was one of the unique features of SHEP.”

Since 2015, archeologists have recovered more than 30,000 artifacts, including 241 pieces of ordnance, five cannons, and two large casemate sections, many of which were transported to the Texas A&M Conservation Research Laboratory for conservation efforts ultimately culminating with their intended display in museums. The two large casemate sections were documented and reburied in the back river out of the way of the shipping channel.

“Restoring historical artifacts, especially ones found underwater, is a lengthy and expensive process,” Farmer said. “The artifacts that were not chosen for restoration were placed in containers, transported upriver, and reburied where they will be safe and out of the way for many years to come.”

The systematic recovery and preservation of the archaeological record and surviving physical evidence consisted of several phases of on-site activity on the Savannah River.

“The initial phase focused on the systematic identification, mapping and recovery of all small artifacts, vessel hardware, and fastenings and the construction of an on-site web to facilitate subsequent relocation and recovery of large artifacts and vessel components including ordnance, machinery, and casemate structure,” said Brian Choate, Savannah District physical scientist. “The second phase focused on the recovery of railroad armor, steam machinery, and other heavy objects to finish clearing the site for the final phase. The final phase of on­ site activity prepared and recovered segments of all three sections of casemate.” 

Following this, the Savannah District stored the artifacts at the USACE Engineer Depot facilities on Hutchinson Island. This facility is on the Savannah River and is a short distance upstream from the wreck-site. The artifacts were stored in a wet environment, specifically fresh water. The artifacts that were deemed fragile and in need of sequestering to prevent further corrosion were stored in a 5% solution of sodium sesquicarbonate.

Locally built in 1862 the CSS Georgia served as an integral element of the Confederate defenses that protected Savannah until General W.T. Sherman's Union Army captured the city. On December 1864, the CSS Georgia was scuttled by the Confederate forces to prevent it from falling into Union hands during the final days of the American Civil War on the Savannah River.

“The completion of the CSS Georgia data recovery could not have happened without the combined efforts of USACE, the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Marine Corps, the U.S. Coast Guard and various state, federal and local agencies,” Farmer said. “Together, we have accomplished one of the largest archaeological excavations of a maritime site that has ever taken place in the state of Georgia and preserved an important part of our local history.”