By Harriet McLeod
(Reuters) - A Confederate ironclad warship, scuttled by its crew to prevent it from falling into Yankee hands, will be salvaged before the long-planned dredging of the mouth of the Savannah River to handle big, modern commercial container ships.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in charge of the dredging project, can't say how long it will take, but Savannah won't be able to handle new super-sized container ships coming through the Panama Canal in 2014 before its harbor is dredged.
The wreck of the Confederate States Ship Georgia lies 40 feet below the surface of the river under a layer of silt. The ship was scuttled by Confederate sailors in 1864 to prevent it from falling into the hands of Union General William T. Sherman's troops as they approached Savannah.
After the ship is raised, dredging can begin for the $653 million project to deepen Savannah's harbor, river and shipping channel out to sea from 42 feet to 47 feet. The project, which has been studied for 15 years, is underfunded and does not yet have full approval from the Army Corps.
Savannah District Corps spokesman Billy E. Birdwell said it would cost about $14 million to remove the wreck of the ironclad warship.
Both the Union and Confederate navies had ironclads, 19th-century wooden warships covered in heavy iron plating, and they played a part in several dramatic sea battles in the Civil War.
The wreck is owned by the U.S. Navy and the boundary between South Carolina and Georgia runs right through the site, Birdwell said. Although the Corps has had an agreement since 1984 with both states not to dredge within 50 feet of the wreck, the ship has been damaged by previous dredging, Birdwell said.
"That's how it was discovered in the first place," he said. "We struck it with a dredge."
Salt water has destroyed its wooden hull, but the ship's iron casement, the part that was above the waterline when the vessel was a floating Civil War battery, still exists, he said. The wreck is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Corps plans to contract marine archeologists to survey, salvage and conserve the historical artifact.
"This is not a hiccup," Birdwell said. "We were planning all along for the CSS Georgia. It's part of our cultural heritage.
"We don't see it as an obstacle," he said. "We just see it as something we need to do."
FLOATING WEAPONS BATTERY
The ship never saw battle in the open sea, Birdwell said. Its engine was too weak to propel the ponderous vessel quickly forward, so it was used as a floating weapons battery.
Built in the Savannah shipyards in 1862, the 250-foot long ship helped protect the river approaches to the city during the next two years of the Civil War, according to the Naval Historical Center's website.
Savannah, the fourth largest container port in the nation according to the Department of Transportation, is among several South Atlantic ports that want to deepen their shipping channels for super-sized container ships expected to come through the expanded Panama Canal starting in 2014.
Savannah's port lies 21 miles from the ocean and environmentalists have filed lawsuits to block the dredging, which they say could severely impact the marshy river shore along the course of the project, as well as parts of the river upstream toward Augusta.
The Corp's final decision will not be made until the end of this year, Birdwell said. Georgia Ports Authority Executive Director Curtis Foltz said the entire project was expected to be finished by 2016, though some officials said that is optimistic.
Dredging is expected to take two to five years after the project starts, Birdwell said, and could begin as soon as next year if funding is secured.
Committed funds from the state and the Corps total just over $184 million, port officials said.
The cost of environmental mitigation, which includes removal of the CSS Georgia, building fish passageways and installation of a "bubbler" system to boost oxygen levels in the river, will be 42 percent of the project's total price tag, Birdwell said.
The deadline for public comments on the Corps' final environmental impact statement, issued this spring, is May 20.
Exactly when the ironclad survey will start and how long it will take to get the ship out of the river is "hard to pin down exactly," Birdwell said. "It's not an overnight process."
The Corps has found two other old ships in the channel: Eclipse, a 100-year-old steel-hulled sailing pilot boat, and Undine, an 1867 English-built clipper ship.
It has no plans to raise them, Birdwell said.
(Editing by David Adams and Todd Eastham)