SAVANNAH, Ga. — For three decades, the stained and blurry photograph presented a great mystery to Civil War historians.
It was a picture taken of another photo in a peeling, gilded frame. In the foreground stood a man, his back to the camera, in an overcoat and a hat. In the center, visible amid stains and apparent water damage, was a ship.
Did this picture show the only known photograph of the ironclad Confederate warship the CSS Georgia?
The 1,200-ton ship never fired a shot in combat. Confederate sailors sunk their ship
in December 1864 as Union troops took Savannah.
No blueprints survived and period illustrations varied in their details. Records show John Potter donated a copy of the picture of the photo to the Georgia Historical Society in March 1986.
As the Army Corps of Engineers embarked this year on a $14 million project to raise the Georgia’s wreckage, archaeologists publicized the image in hopes of tracking
down the original photo.
Now the man who took that photo of the photo says he wants to clear the record: It is a fake.
Here was the story Potter told 30 years ago: The Savannah native was at a yard sale when he found the photograph in an antique frame. Inscribed on the back of the frame was “CSS Georgia.” He couldn’t afford it, so he took a photo and mailed it to historical groups in Savannah.
Here is his new story: When he was a teen in Savannah, Potter, his brother Jeffrey and a friend shot a short 8 mm movie about the CSS Georgia. They built a 2-foot model. At some point, Potter decided to test whether he had the skills to pursue his dream of becoming a special effects artist.
Potter’s younger brother put on a coat and straw hat and went to a marsh with a cane fishing pole, and Potter took a photo. He took another photo of the 2-foot model, cut out the boat’s image, glued it onto the photo of his brother, then used dirt and glue to create the illusion of a photo faded and stained.
He bought an old picture frame and beat it up. He put the photo in it. Then he drove 120 miles to a yard sale – or maybe it was a flea market – in Waycross, Ga., put the picture down and took a Polaroid of it. He laughs now, when he remembers that it had seemed so important that he actually do this at a yard sale, so at least that part would be true. “Who knows what goes through the mind of a kid,” he said.
Potter sent the photo to historical groups, setting off the sporadic search.
Potter, 50, never became a successful special effects artist. He said he’d forgotten about the photo and had no idea the fuss it had caused until he saw it recently on the Army Corps Web site.
First, he decided to play along. But after his brother’s death last month, he contacted The Associated Press to come clean.
“I’m not in good health. I didn’t want to drop dead and carry that to my grave,” he said.
Potter said he never profited from his hoax.
“I didn’t intend to hurt or embarrass anybody, because I really love history,” he said. “But there’s still a lesson there: Do your dang homework.”
He gave the AP his old 8 mm movie along with old photos. One showed a young man he said was his brother in a marsh wearing a coat and straw hat and carrying a fishing pole – much like the figure in the ironclad photograph. Another showed the boy holding the model ship.