We had done a lot of work planning our route to the Stark Museum in Orange, Texas, but we had not put much thought into what we might visit on our drive home. As a result, we followed up on a friend’s recommendation that we visit Columbus, Georgia, and the National Civil War Naval Museum.
The museum opened in 1962 and this timing was linked, in part, to anticipation of the upcoming Civil War centennial. Another driving factor was the 1960 discovery of the CSS Jackson in the Chattahoochee River. The river was at a particularly low point in 1962, which favored recovery efforts and the return of the ship to Columbus, where she had been built in 1864-65. The timing was great.
In addition to housing the Jackson, a 223-foot iron-clad rammer, this 40,000-square-foot facility houses another original Civil War military vessel, uniforms, equipment, and weapons used by the Union and Confederate navies. A great deal of the museum’s footage is used to house the remains of the CSS Jackson in Gallery A and the stern of the gunboat CSS Chattahoochee in Gallery B.
The Jackson(originally named the Muscogee) is one of the largest armored warships built by the Confederacy. The ship was a shallow-bottom iron-clad rammer that was intended for use on the Chattahoochee River to protect Columbus’ industrial compound. The Jackson was launched on December 22, 1864, but was not yet completed when Union Army raiders captured Columbus on April 16, 1865, and the next day they set the Jackson ablaze and adrift in the river. The enormous vessel drifted downstream and settled on a sandbar where it burned to water level. The lower portion of the hull, with its four-inch iron plate and two-foot thick wooden timbers, sank, rotted and rusted in the flowing water for nearly a century. (The Civil War Picket, Phil Gast. Tuesday March 5, 2019. Civil-war-picket.blogspot.com. Accessed May 1, 2020)
Our first sight of the enormous ship was from a viewing platform at one end of the gallery. A skeletal super structure has been suspended above the remaining hull to give a hint of the original vessel’s shape. At ground level, we were able to study how the thick wooden beams had been braced and pinned together. Regretfully, dynamite had been employed to cut the ship in half for her return to Columbus and that is why there is a ten to twelve foot gap in the remaining structure…but even in her ruined condition, she is impressive.
An interesting aside for the readers who have been following these blog entries is that Horace King, the freed slave and architectural genius who designed the beautiful floating staircases in the Alabama and Mississippi capitol buildings, is responsible for supplying the enormous timbers that were used in the construction of the Jackson. After doing further research, I suspect that he may have been even more involved. King had been conscripted by Confederate authorities and assigned to work on projects in Florida and Alabama. Prior to the war, he had built two bridges in Columbus that spanned the Chattahoochee River, and in 1863 he was tasked with constructing a rolling iron mill in the city. The Jackson’s distinctive rear deck with its curved fantail meant that each piece of lumber and iron had to be perfectly pie-shaped and fitted together to create the custom shape. With King’s extensive knowledge of bridge and building construction, he may have played a significant role in the design and fashioning of the iron as well as the lumber for the construction of that challenging fantail.
In 1865, the CSS Chattahoochee was also tied up at the harbor and had not yet seen action in the war. The Chattahoochee was a three-mast sail and steam gunboat that had been constructed in Safford, GA, in 1863 and was intended for river defense (see photo of model). The ship sank after a boiler exploded and was towed to Columbus for engine repairs, so she was also in the harbor when Union troops approached.
Before she could be captured, her crew towed her out of the city, set fire to the vessel and cut the lines, leaving her adrift in the river’s current. Recovery efforts did not go as well for the Chattahoochee and crews were only able to raise a 30-foot section of the stern that is now housed in the museum.
Storyboards throughout the museum explain the chronology of the Confederate Navy’s history. Their fact-filled yet brief content brings to life many aspects of the war I had never considered. Also inserted are stories of seamen and officers whose feats of daring are worth repeating.
On February 21, 1861, Stephen R. Mallory assumed the post of Secretary of the Confederate Navy. At that time, the South did not have a single warship nor did they have the means to build one. “By war’s end [April 1865], the navy had commissioned at least 130 ships, including almost a dozen ironclads.” (Museum sign: “The Confederacy Builds a Navy”)
Both North and South faced enormous challenges on the naval front. The U.S. war with the Barbary Pirates (1801-05) had shown the need for a strong navy and the War of 1812 further underscored that fact, but in December 1860 the U.S. Navy had only 52 serviceable warships and approximately 7600 officers and men.” When the South seceded, 24% of the officers on duty resigned and most of them formed the leadership core of the Confederate Navy. (Museum sign: “The United States Navy: Second Rate to World Power”).
President Lincoln understood the need to blockade and isolate the South. This quote illustrates the efforts he expected of the Union Navy: “Nor must Uncle Sam’s web feet be forgotten. At all the watery margins they have been present. Not only on the deep sea, broad bay and the rapid river, but also up the narrow muddy bayou, and wherever the ground was a little damp, they have been and made their tracks.” (Museum sign: “The United States Navy: Second Rate to World Power”).
The stranglehold was effective and ultimately the South could not get their product out to earn revenue nor could they get supplies in to support the war efforts. They built ships and did a commendable job of creating a navy from what they had available, but they lacked the manpower to sail these vessels so ships, such as the Chattahoochee, lay idle waiting for repairs and crew.
Large, full-color murals portray the different types of boats and ships employed by the North and South in different kinds of waters…brown referring to rivers; green referring to bays, gulfs and sheltered waters; and blue water navies were those ships sailing on open oceans.
Flags from the ships and forts of that era are spread against the walls, and the enormous size of some of these banners underscores the great size of the ships that would have flown them.
This 24- by 16-foot ensign flew above the CSS Atlanta until she ran aground in 1863 in Wassaw Sound (near Savannah) and was damaged and captured. She had been a British-built blockade runner until her conversion for Confederate service…then after her capture and repair, she went to work for the U.S. Navy. She had quite a full life!
Recreated sections the USS Hartford give glimpses into life below the decks for sailors and officers. It was from the deck of the Hartford that Admiral David Farragut famously declared “Damn the Torpedoes!” and sailed through the heavily mined waters into Mobile Bay. The subsequent battle was won by Union forces and forced the closing of the Confederacy’s last major port on the Gulf of Mexico.
The museum has also created a large scale exhibit in which the CSS Albemarle (another steam-powered ironclad gunboat) is tied up at the wharf in Plymouth, North Carolina. The lighting gives the impression that you are taking an evening strole along the waterfront.
After the war, Mallory (former Secretary of the Confederate Navy) reflected on the role of the South’s navy: “I am satisfied that, with the means we had at our control, and in view of the overwhelming force of the enemy at the onset of the struggle, our little navy accomplished more than could have been hoped or looked for.” (Museum sign: “The Confederacy Builds a Navy”)
We spent far more time in the naval museum than I would have ever anticipated and came away with a tremendous respect for the determination and courage of those who built and manned the vessels that fought in the battles that often took place on dangerous and unforgiving waters. But this was not going to be our last encounter with heroism that day. Next, we scheduled a visit to the National Infantry Museum where we would learn about the history of the U.S. Army.