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Two ships in the night
Local doc finds connections between two historical vessels, both named for the state of Georgia
The USS Georgia control room

QUESTION: When is history like gymnastics? Answer: When you have to bend over backwards to explain connections and make them matter to people today.

Around 1999 or so, I started my journey with the CSS Georgia, a Civil War warship sunk in the Savannah River adjacent to Old Fort Jackson. The Georgia served as the genesis for countless stories at WSAV-TV 3 when I worked there as a reporter and anchor, as the subject of a cover article I wrote for this newspaper several years ago, and as the focus of my masters thesis at Armstrong Atlantic State University.

Now, more than eight years later, the ship is still telling me secrets and daring me to tell its stories to the Savannahians of today. There’s another ship trying to horn its way into the story, too. But I’ll tell you more about that later.

The Georgia’s story begins in Spring 1862, when the ironclad CSS Virginia smashed its way through the Union blockading fleet in Hampton Roads, Va. The Virginia’s near-victory (it was checked by the Union ironclad USS Monitor before it could completely destroy the Yankee fleet) heralded the end of the age of wooden warships.

Hundreds of miles down the Atlantic seaboard, the people of Savannah paid heed—particularly the women. A Ladies Gunboat Society formed to collect donations for a new ironclad. Within a few months they raised more than $100,000 to build a warship of their own, which they named the Georgia.

While the new vessel was too weak to fight the strong tides of the Savannah River, it still made a formidable obstacle to any Union attack, and kept the city safe until the arrival of Union Gen. William T. Sherman in December 1864. The Georgia’s crew sank the ship to keep it out of Union hands, and the vessel’s wreckage remains on the bottom of the river to this day—save for two cannon and some smaller metal wreckage raised by archaeologists since the Georgia’s rediscovery in 1968.

Now, the rest of the ship—at least what’s left of it—will be raised as part of the proposed harbor deepening project in the Savannah River. The Coastal Heritage Society plans to exhibit the conserved remains years down the road in one of the museum buildings in the Roundhouse complex.

Fast-forward to the year 2000, when another ship by the same name faced the end of its quarter-century-long career. The USS Georgia was one of our nation’s eighteen nuclear-powered missile submarines, its twenty-four tubes, or silos, loaded with an equal number of intercontinental ballistic missiles.

With the end of the Cold War and the requirements of treaties with the former Soviet Union, the U.S. Navy was required to scrap four of the eighteen subs. That meant the USS Georgia and three other $2 billion ships were about to become razor blades.

Echoing the actions of the Civil War women who raised tens of thousands of dollars to build the USS Georgia, Sheila McNeill of Brunswick stepped in to stop the destruction of the subs. Working as National President of the Navy League of the U.S. —a civilian military booster group—McNeill organized a massive lobbying campaign, visiting every member of the House and Senate.

Her message caught hold with First District Congressman Jack Kingston, who took it directly to President Bush aboard Air Force One as the president flew to Fort Stewart in early 2000 for his first speech as commander-in-chief. President Bush listened, and by this writing, all four submarines have been converted into a new type of weapon.

While the ships are still powered by nuclear reactors, the four sub’s nuclear missiles have been replaced with dozens of non-nuclear Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles. Each sub now carries more than 150 Tomahawks—about as many as an entire U.S. Navy surface fleet.

Furthermore, other parts of the subs have been converted into lockout chambers for more than sixty Navy SEALS. In short, the conversion has capitalized on the end of the Cold War to exponentially multiply the United States’ military options short of nuclear war.

Now for the gymnastics—tying these two ships together and weaving their two stories into one narrative thread. The first connection is easy: both ships owe their existence to the women of Georgia—the Ladies Gunboat Society in the case of the CSS Georgia, and Sheila McNeill and her group in the case of the USS Georgia.

But the similarities don’t stop there. In the course of making A Tale of Two Georgias, I was able to spend a day and a half at sea aboard the submarine Georgia, and noted that the lives of submarine crews are not too different than those of Civil War ironclad sailors.

Granted, at least submarines are air-conditioned, but both sets of sailors work inside iron boxes, cut off from the outside world and in great physical danger. What’s more, the new-fangled rifled cannon used aboard the CSS Georgia and its sister ships were just as high-tech in their day as the Tomahawk cruise missiles are today.

But in the end, the real similarity lies in the commitment of sailors to their cause and to one another.

As one former submariner involved in the USS Georgia effort explained, “It’s not that different. Your life is just as dependent on the guy next to you now as it was 150 years ago.”

Maybe telling two stories in one doesn’t involve screenwriting gymnastics after all. cs

Michael Jordan's new film, "A Tale of Two Georgias," premieres at 4:30 pm Sun., Nov. 16 on FOX 28 TV. A public viewing party will take place at Blowin' Smoke BBQ, 514 MLK, Jr. Blvd., with free appetizers while supplies last.