In the spring of 1862, Sophia Schley was moving about the streets of Augusta with great urgency on a mission to help save the city from the potential ravages of war. Sophia, the 63-year-old widow of Gov. William Schley, was leader of the Ladies Volunteer Association of Augusta. Its mission was to help raise money to build a gunboat to protect the reaches of the Savannah River.
The urgency stemmed from a naval battle a few weeks earlier at Hampton Roads, Va. The duel between the U.S.S. Monitor and the C.S.S. Virginia changed the face of naval warfare and ushered in the era of ironclads.
It took only days for the Savannah Republican newspaper to print the letters of two South Carolina women who urged the port city to build its own gunboat to protect itself. Less than a week later came the report of the first meeting of the Savannah Ladies Gunboat Association. The five-member steering committee included Augusta native Gazaway Lamar, at the time a Savannah banker.
As the alarm spread across the state, women of Augusta, Macon, Milledgeville, Rome and eight other Georgia cities quickly joined the committee, all responding out of a sense of patriotism and economic self-interest. The only city not participating was Atlanta.
A NUMBER OF prominent Augusta businessmen stepped forward to support Mrs. Schley’s committee. Col. James Gardner, the editor of the Daily Constitutionalist, assisted with the fund-raising. Described as “rash, passionate and presumptuous,” Gardner’s previous fund-raising experience included the pro-slavery party.
Cotton dealer and ship owner Thomas Metcalf was on the committee. He was described as a “true, uncompromising friend of the South,” who raised and equipped the Metcalf Guards when the war broke out.
Joining Gardner and Metcalf on the committee was John Bones, the eldest son of Irish immigrants, who found great financial success by building an early cotton factory in Augusta. His previous relief efforts included helping to sustain his countrymen through the Irish potato famine in the late 1840s.
Judge Benjamin H. Warren also lent his service to the ladies. This native of Virginia was an early president of the Georgia Railroad and Banking Co. He was involved with the development of the Augusta Canal and sold 200 acres of his plantation along the canal as the site for the Confederate Powder Works.
Two others rounding out the committee were John Davison, one of the incorporators of Sibley Mill, and J.B. Walker, who 20 years earlier served as a member of the Augusta Independent Fire Company.
WITH THE COMMITTEE in motion, funds began pouring in. Chapters around the state quickly raised $110,000 to build a gunboat that would become the C.S.S. Georgia. Of that amount, $50,000 was in bonds issued by the city of Augusta, which the city redeemed after the war over the objections of the military authorities, who claimed a debt to aid the rebellion was not enforceable. The state picked up the remaining $40,000 of the cost of the ship.
Mrs. Schley and her committee certainly shared the pride of all Augustans, knowing that their city raised the most money of any chapter. For that honor, the No. 1 cannon would forever carry the name “Augusta.” However, for all the fanfare, neither the cannon nor the gunboat would ever see battle.
The ship was built on plans from iron founder Alvin Miller, probably at Harding’s Shipyard along the southern bank of the river in Savannah. Estimates of the vessel’s length range from 150 feet to 250 feet. She was designed to carry 10 heavy guns within the casement – four on each side and one on each end. The casement was protected by unmodified T-rails – railroad iron – that was not as effective as iron plate, but faster to install.
Two months removed from the battle of the ironclads at Hampton Roads, the Georgia was launched on May 19, 1862, still lacking iron on the casement. But the engines and boilers were nearly complete, and most of the guns were ready to go on board. In mid-July the public was allowed to view the boat. The Ladies Gunboat Association declared its work finished.
During a trial run in the river July 24, the builders found a major propulsion problem. The C.S.S. Georgia could travel only two knots; the river current was twice that. Originally, the Georgia was intended to steam out to Fort Pulaski and relieve the Union blockade. However, the fort fell before the Georgia was finished. So, in late October, the decision was made to tow the Georgia down river to opposite of Fort Jackson, where it remained as a floating battery.
Topped with casements made from 500 tons of railroad steel, the weight made the ship bulge at the seams and leak badly. The steam engines were kept running full-time to power the pumps to keep her from sinking. Crew duty consisted of target practice, followed by days of tedious work and guard duty – all extremely boring. Desertion was not uncommon.
Although the Georgia never directly engaged the enemy, she served a menacing purpose. No sooner had she been posted, the commander of the Union blockade said he felt a “sense of oppression,” knowing an ironclad was in the river channel. A Northern newspaperman described her as a “monstrous creature.”
After just two years of service, the Georgia was scuttled rather than allowed to fall into the hands of Gen. William T. Sherman’s troops. No attention was paid to the Georgia for more than 100 years – until 1968, when the wreck was rediscovered by a dredge widening the channel. Four more dredging operations near the wreck during the 1960s and 1970s contributed to further degradation.
Texas A&M University prepared the first archeological and engineering assessment of the site for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1979. During those operations, two cannons – a 32-pounder reworked into a rifled gun and a 24-pound howitzer – were brought up. A number of Brooke projectiles, percussion fuses and spherical shot were also recovered. Four years later the wreck found a home on the National Register of Historic Places.
Anticipating future channel deepening, the Army contracted with Gulf South Research Corp. for additional assessments in 2003. That work provided valuable new insight into the debris field. What they found was that not much of the ship itself remains. Over time, dredging operations have chewed into the wreck, destabilizing the site. The hull is long since gone. Two large sections and a smaller third section of iron casement remain, along with the steam cylinders and one propeller and shaft. Three cannon and possibly the boiler also remain.
The best source of information on the Georgia is the wreckage itself. No plans survive the war. Artist renderings and photographs are inconclusive as to details of the armored casement and hull. Few contemporary written descriptions have emerged.
Federal law requires attention to the wreckage as part of the plan to deepen the Savannah port.
The Corps’ cultural resources plan suggests the preservation work could take place at the H.L. Hunley Confederate submarine facility in Charleston, S.C., or at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C. The Coastal Heritage Society in Savannah has expressed an interest in using its history museum as the repository. The Corps intends to keep the entire collection in Savannah.
I believe this would be shortsighted. So many Georgians contributed to the construction of the ironclad through the dozen chapters of the Ladies Gunboat Association that these cities and counties ought to have the option to receive some of the artifacts. Doing so would allow for an interpretation of the fund-raising efforts of their local citizens and to link those stories to actual pieces of the wreckage.
The role of Augusta in the birth of the C.S.S. Georgia is written in the passion of Sophia Schley, Col. James Gardner, Thomas Metcalf, John Bones, Benjamin. H. Warren, John B. Walker, John Davison, Gazaway Lamar and the many long-forgotten Augusta patriots who gave of their personal resources in a time of great hardship.
It could be argued that the collection should be kept together. That might make sense if the ship were still intact – like the submarine Hunley. But that is not the case, and some of the recovered items have previously been sent for display in the National Civil War Naval Museum in Columbus, Ga.
For its part, the Corps proposes to spend $14.2 million to raise and salvage what is left of the Georgia. Interestingly, in 1872 the Corps estimated the cost of removing the Georgia from the Savannah River channel at $10,000.
The C.S.S. Georgia is yet another casualty of the war that took so many lives and fortunes. Scuttled, abused, neglected and lost to the ages, the iron lady is about to get her long-overdue respect. Preserving this ironclad will honor the selfless service of the ladies from across Georgia who raised the money to pay for her and of the men who built and manned her.
One-hundred-fifty years after her birth, the C.S.S. Georgia gives us opportunity to introduce to yet another generation the stories of individual sacrifice and courage that are at the heart of the American Civil War.
(The writer is a former Augusta mayor and current president and CEO of the Southeastern Natural Sciences Academy.)