The Grapevine Art & Soul Salon
Tracking History: Jonathan Knott, Host
Ocean Tracking at the National Civil War Naval Museum in Columbus, Georgia
Iíve been frightened yet fascinated by the ocean my entire life. The idea that literally ANYTHING might be lurking down there still fills me with childlike wonder. Iíve also always been interested in ships, military history (particularly of the naval variety) and full of curiosity as to where a ship goes and what happens to it when it sinks. Whenever Iím at ANY museum, Iím always drawn first to objects found underwater. I was particularly delighted when the National Civil War Naval Museum in Columbus, Georgia, recently decided to arrange a symposium on underwater archaeology and recovery techniques, to be hosted by some of the nationís foremost experts in the field. My dad and I made the trip.
Being 250 miles away from the ocean might seem to make Columbus an odd place for a Confederate naval yard, but in fact it was strategically appropriate, as the smaller Southern navy needed to hide its ships (especially the technologically advanced ironclads) from the much larger and more powerful Union navy. Steaming them up the winding Chattahoochee River worked pretty well at first. Columbus is still a naval town, and the museum is easy to locate by its life-sized replica of the U.S.S. Water Witch sailing vessel in the parking lot in front of the building (visitors can tour that as well, though we did not on this day because it was raining profusely).
The lectures had already begun when we arrived, and I found out much to my dismay that it was a reserved event. While this meant we didnít have a seat, the staff was kind enough to invite us to stand and listen anyway if we wished, which we did for a while. The presentations contained interesting information, but as a whole they were a bit dry and scholarly for my taste. I opted for touring the museum.
Itís a dark and cool place, lending an air of mystery to the exhibits, which are mostly related to (or indeed are) ironclads. Ironclads were wooden warships that from the waterline up were encased in iron to make them nearly impervious to cannon shot. They were the epitome of technology at the time, and the Civil War marked the first time two ironclads ever fought each other (the Monitor vs. the Merrimac). Fittingly enough, it was a draw, as neither could pierce the otherís armor.
This famous battle is well represented in the museum, with both full-sized partial replicas that one can walk on or through, plus the complete 1:25 scale models used in a Turner documentary about the battle (the documentary plays in a loop on a TV set between them). There is also a replica of the CSS Albemarle, a Confederate ironclad that you explore while you hear, piped in through unseen speakers, sounds of iron shot ringing off the hull.
The main attractions are the ships themselves: the remains of two Confederate ironclads brought up from the deep. The smaller of the two, the CSS Chattahoochee, is a representative size of a standard ironclad, though all thatís left is the wooden keel and the engines. While most Confederate ironclads were captured and burnt, this one escaped, only to be scuttled later by its own crew.
The CSS Jackson is the largest one built during the war and an absolute monster. Itís in its own room, and while the authentic part is still only the keel, itís almost completely intact, and thereís a ďghost shipĒ metal structure over the top to show what it would have looked like while still afloat. Paintings of ironclads donít do them justice; they look squat and rather small. They were in fact (this one in particular), nearly overwhelming to look at in reality. The Jackson was captured and burnt before it could see much action.
Why were they so easy to capture? In contrast to, say, the famous CSS Alabama commerce raider (whose bell is on display here) that played havoc with the Union Navy on the high seas and evaded destruction for years? Werenít ironclads indestructible? Yes and no. They were impervious to cannon, but due to their enormous weight and the primitive engines of the day, they were painfully slow and not suited to ocean travel. Therefore, they were confined to maneuvering up and down rivers and bays in calm weather and could be captured while in port, which was most of the time. The few that took to the sea, even in desperation, usually sunk from weather.
The Confederate ironclads were even slower than the Union ones. They were often captured or sunken Union wooden vessels that had been raised and re-purposed, keeping the original engines that were designed for a far lighter ship. It would have been easy to jog or even walk alongside most of them on shore while they chugged upstream.
The most spacious exhibit, an interactive one, is a partial replica of a huge wooden battleship, the U.S.S. Hartford, which was Union Admiral David Farragutís flagship. Though ironclads were high tech and more powerful than pure wooden ships, they were considered ugly, nasty innovations, and the majority of the Union Navy ships were still beautifully old-fashioned. The Confederates, having far fewer ports and raw materials, invested most of what they had in the stubby iron ships that provided more bang for the buck.
The exhibition shows a representative example of what life on board a wooden warship was like, from the way food was stored and prepared to the vast differences in living space between the common sailors and the officers, especially the almighty Captain. This detail is particularly fun for those whoíve read Patrick OíBrienís twenty seafaring novels or C.S. Forresterís Hornblower series, or indeed Moby Dick or any other book about wooden sailing vessels. In principle, they didnít change much from the 17th to mid-19th centuries. Wandering around this exhibit to the sound of creaking wood being piped in brought back inwardly and in great detail my many, many hours spent reading those books.
One of the larger rooms displays flags, swords, rifles, pistols, enlarged photographs of ships and crew, everyday items sailors might carry, torpedoes (early, experimental versions of what we would today call ďminesĒ), and shipís bells, creating a perfect atmosphere to transport oneself mentally to a different time and place. I love to look at a deck of old cards or a uniform or battle drum and be drawn inwardly into the time and place my imagination has created from so many books, movies and documentaries. I feel a magical presence in the genuine objects, which makes museum hunting perhaps my favorite hobby.
Though Columbus is a bit out of the way for the casual fan, itís certainly worth stopping by if youíre in the area, and for hardcore history buffs like me, itís a definite must-see. Itís also a PERFECT place to walk along the mighty Chattahoochee River; there are lovely trails everywhere. Remember, it is the National museum, one reason it represents both sides, despite being located on the bones of a Confederate naval yard in the deepest of the deep South.