Are sunken ships from Civil War still lying in the Chattahoochee? Here’s what a historian says
Columbus Ledger-Enquirer, Ga. June 5, 2023
(Tribune News Service) — The Chattahoochee River has become a tourist attraction for kayaking and whitewater rafting, but some may not know the history that lies just feet beneath their paddles.
The site of the last battle of the Civil War took place as Brig. Gen. James H. Wilson crossed the Chattahoochee River and into Columbus where fierce fighting took many lives and left the city in ruin.
Now more than a century and a half later, artifacts from that battle may still lie in their aquatic tomb at the bottom of the Chattahoochee River.
Holly Wait, the Executive Director at the National Civil War Naval Museum in Columbus, says part of a sunken ship still lies at the bottom of the river and its possible artifacts such as cannonballs may as well.
Part of what fuels the belief more artifacts rest at the bottom is because she said three cannons have been retrieved from the river over the years and two are now a part of the museum with the third lying in a graveyard in Downtown Columbus.
During the Battle of Columbus, Union Soldiers set fire to a ship, which now sets sail on mock waters in the museum. The ironclad ship named the CSS Jackson, also called the Muscogee, was set ablaze and was set adrift until it found its way to the bottom of the river.
The ship was excavated nearly a century after its burning in 1865 in an effort led by J.W. Woodruff in 1961, according to the museum’s website.
The three cannons were from the CSS Jackson, according to Wait. One is located on the river and is still set off from time to time on special occasions, according to Wait.
However, while the Jackson was able to be recovered, part of one ship destroyed in the battle still lies in the River.
Wait said the bow end of CSS Chattahoochee still lies somewhere at the bottom of the river it shares a name with. The museum is currently in possession of the stern end of the ship.
The ship was set on fire by the very men who commanded the ship so it wouldn’t fall into the hands of Union soldiers, according to the Museum’s website.
In 1984 East Carolina University and the Confederate Naval Museum set out to relocate the CSS Chattahoochee, determine its condition and figure out the potential for research, recovery and exhibition, according to a page on the University of Georgia’s archaeology website.
The remains of the bow end of the ship contain a variety of artifacts associated with use of the ship, according to the website. The site says that researchers found that the remaining part of the ship was in good condition and could be raised, conserved and displayed. However, that deduction was made over thirty years ago and the condition of ship could’ve worsened in that time.
Chattahoochee River divers beware
While the allure of having your own piece of history is tempting, laws are in place that keep treasure hunters from disturbing historical artifacts.
Those who wish to dive in the Chattahoochee are allowed to dive in the Chattahoochee with proper equipment and markings, according to the Department of Natural Resources Law Enforcement division. The law enforcement division of DNR has jurisdiction over the Chattahoochee River.
However, there are dangerous diving conditions around the Columbus area due to rocks, according to Game Warden Dean Gibson of DNR.
Gibson said any items that have remained under the water for more than 50 years are considered a historical artifact and can’t be disturbed, according to Georgia law.
In the State of Georgia it is illegal to take artifacts off the bottom of state-owned waters. However, it is legal to collect artifacts with the permission of the landowner in privately-owned waterways, according to the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division.
If you are interested in artifact collecting and are wondering how to legally go about artifact hunting you can check out their FAQ sheet here.
Also, instead of diving the over 400 mile long river offers plenty of other attractions such as 48 miles of river trail in the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area that you can explore by boat, kayak, canoe or raft, according to Georgia River Network.
The Recreation Area also includes 16 parks that you can explore that help, “...preserve the beauty and recreational value of the river,” according to the website.
One diver talks about artifacts
“If stuff hasn’t been discovered before my time it’s probably covered or in layers and layers of silt,” said Capt. Chase Kinsman, a Dive Master with Columbus Fire&EMS.
Kinsman has found remnants of 19th and 20th century Columbus lying in the Chattahoochee River. He has found bricks from the mid 1800s and early 1900s while diving in the River. One brick made by Evens & Howard Fire Brick Co. made its way from St. Louis, down to Columbus and to the Chattahoochee River where it sat for decades before Kinsman pulled it from the murky waters.
“The Chattahoochee is a different animal,” said Kinsman when asked what his experience has been like diving the river.
Kinsman said that the swift water section of the river is more difficult because of the rocky terrain under the water.
He said the easier sections of the river to dive are around the area called Bibb Pond and the section of the river below the Trade Center.
What to do if you find a cannonball
If divers locate a cannonball, experts warn against coming into contact with it. Those who find something that they may be an explosive device should follow the Three R’s: Recognize, Retreat and Report, according to Fort Moore Garrison Safety Director Daniel Orta.
“Any type of munition that is found that was once owned by the military at some point of time falls into the military munitions rule which requires DOD response to that,” said Sgt. First Class James Little with the 789th Ordnance Company.
Little said that cannonballs can still pose a threat to those around it. He said that a 12 pound hollow cannonball has a potential horizontal hazardous frag distance up to 4200 feet mathematically but would realistically be hazardous around 400 feet.
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