Plunging into History: Virginia Beach Navy divers helping to raise Civil War ironclad

Posted at 7:28 PM, May 28, 2015
and last updated 2015-07-17 06:42:46-04

Savannah, Georgia (WTKR) - Elite Navy Divers from Hampton Roads are literally plunging into history as part of a project to recover what's left of a Civil War ship.

The Navy invited NewsChannel 3's Todd Corillo to travel to Savannah with divers and explosive ordnance technicians taking part in a once-in-a-lifetime mission: salvaging the Confederate ironclad CSS Georgia from the depths of the Savannah River.

"We see people out in town and they are like 'oh you are doing the CSS Georgia that is so cool,'" explained HM1 Justin Wallace.

The warship was scuttled by its own crew in December 1864 to prevent capture during Union General William T. Sherman's "March to the Sea."

Ever since, it has sat at the bottom of the Savannah River.

"There are far more unknowns about the Georgia wreck than there are knowns at the moment," explained Jim Jobling, a project manager with Texas A&M University's Conservation Research Laboratory.

Now, the ship must be removed for the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project, which seeks to deepen the river channel to allow larger cargo ships to access the Port of Savannah.

"We have been doing a dance so to speak with the CSS Georgia for many years when we would do our deepening. There's no way that we can avoid impacting the Georgia this time around," explained Archeologist Julie Morgan with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Savannah District.

Sailors from the Mobile Diving Salvage Unit 2 at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story, as well as Navy Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technicians from EOD Mobile Unit 6, have joined with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to recover the CSS Georgia.

“We have already recovered upwards of 100 pieces of unexploded ordnance and discarded military munitions from the river bottom,” said Chief Warrant Officer Jason Potts, on-scene diving and salvage commander.

"Our divers are literally diving into history every single day here on the CSS Georgia and they are bringing back artifacts that our country hasn't seen since the Civil War," he stated.

Back in June, Navy divers brought up the ship's armor systems, steam engine components, parts of the ship and all her weapons.

Divers are facing tough conditions in Georgia, forced to do most of the recovery work by touch since visibility is virtually non-existent thanks to the muddy river bed.

"As you move around the bottom there's wreckage and rubbish and trash everywhere. 150 year old ship that was scuttled I mean it's all over the place on the bottom now," ND1 Spencer Puett explained.

"You just work with your hands and that's it. Oh yep this feels like what I'm supposed to be touching yea okay I'll try and do that with my hands," Wallace added.

Artifacts recovered from the ship will also be restored and become responsibility of the U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command.

"The fact that these will be preserved for future generations is a little bit less than typical and a really big honor for all of us," Potts commented.

"Something that's been sunk 150 years? It's going to be awesome to see it in a museum someday," stated Senior Chief Richard Bledsoe stated.

Not only are crews preserving history, they are also helping to save money.

“The project has huge national benefits,” said Russell Wicke of the Army Corps of Engineers Corporate Communications Office. “An economic study shows the transportation cost savings could be upwards of 174 million dollars a year.”


Live Blog: Todd Corillo reports from Georgia as Navy divers salvage Confederate ironlcad