Clamoring for the future, Savannah has to first deal with the wreck of the CSS Georgia

A scuttled Civil War battleship at the bottom of the Savannah River is just one of many complicating factors in Savannah’s bid to become a port able to handle 1,200-foot mega tankers expected to start moving through the Panama Canal in 2014.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers/AP
A rendering of the CSS Georgia, a Confederate warship that sank in the Savannah River nearly 148 years ago in Georgia. The Army Corps of Engineers plans to spend $14 million to raise and preserve the sunken Confederate ironclad to make room for deepening Savannah’s harbor.

Before Savannah, Ga., realizes its dream of becoming a world-renowned tanker port, it’s having to deal with tough reminder of its past, in the form of a scuttled Civil War battleship rotting in the Savannah River.

The dredging of the Savannah River has become one of the biggest economic and political footballs in the South, pitting Georgia and South Carolina interests against each other over how to deepen the river that splits the two states where the lowcountry meets the Atlantic’s tidal estuaries.

At stake are not just bragging rights, but millions of dollars in trade that could raise the profile of the languid, Spanish-moss laden city that inspired the 1990s bestseller, “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.”

IN PICTURES: Civil War reenactors

South Carolina politicians just this week put the brakes on a bill that would help the US Army Corps of Engineers argue in front of the South Carolina Supreme Court to dismiss a lawsuit brought by environmentalists to stop the project. Lawmakers worry how the Savannah expansion will affect a planned port expansion in Jasper, S.C., as well as Charleston Harbor’s competitiveness as the Panama Canal begins allowing super-tankers through in 2014.

South Carolina’s $300 million bid to expand Charleston’s port by 2020 is a major issue. The expansion “is the biggest strategic issue for South Carolina today,” Jim Newsome, the chief executive of the South Carolina Ports Authority, told McClatchy newspapers recently.

Environmental concerns have dogged the dredging project, with most of the costs going toward mitigation, including building sets of massive respirators on the river to combat what many expect to be depleted oxygen levels in the water, which could affect, among other species, endangered sturgeon.

The CSS Georgia is now complicating the $653 billion project further, as the project will have to become a fullscale, $42 million underwater archeological dig before massive dredgers can begin deepening the port.

Built with money raised from a local women’s club, the CSS Georgia became a testament to the South’s industrial weakness compared to the North – its steam engines were too weak to push the prow through the river’s current. Meanwhile, it was the approach of an icon of that industrial superiority – General William Tecumseh Sherman – that caused Confederates to quickly scuttle and sink the CSS Georgia upon the Union Army’s approach.

By its ignominious end, the Georgia had become a floating cannon platform on the river. It never fired a shot in battle.

Broken into pieces on a bottom littered with cannonade, the Georgia remains an important part of Southern history, even as it remains classified in Washington as a captured enemy boat.

In 2000, salvagers rescued the CSS Hunley, a Confederate submarine, from where it sank in Charleston Harbor after successfully ramming a torpedo into the hull of a union supply ship, the Housatonic, sinking it. That boat yielded priceless treasures, including personal items from the bodies that were found inside the iron, man-powered submersible.

The Hunley was a rare example of where the antebellum South mustered its resources to achieve a major technological breakthrough. The Georgia, on the other hand, “has very clearly become a symbol for why things went wrong for the Confederate naval effort,” Ken Johnston, executive director of the National Civil War Naval Museum in Columbus, Ga., tells the Associated Press.

In a city that values its colonial and Confederate history, the Georgia has also become yet another reminder that the past often requires reckoning before progress can be made.

IN PICTURES: Civil War reenactors

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