Columbus, Georgia, finds itself on the B list of most discussions of Civil War naval history, an afterthought to prominent port cities such as Charleston, New Orleans, Vicksburg and Mobile. As the site of the nation’s preeminent museum dedicated to Civil War naval history, however, Columbus may finally be getting its due.
Sitting on a bluff overlooking the Chattahoochee River, 175 miles from the Gulf of Mexico on the Alabama-Georgia border, the Port Columbus National Civil War Naval Museum provides an informative overview of the struggle on the water between 1861 and 1865. The museum, which opened in March 2001, doesn’t play favorites. Both the Union and the Confederate navies are accorded a balanced and thorough treatment.
From 1828 on, Columbus was a key economic port used by steamboats to transport cotton down the Chattahoochee to the deep-water docks on the Gulf Coast. The Confederate government built a shipyard there during the war to supply its fledgling navy with steam engines, boilers and ordnance. It also was where the 225-footlong CSS Jackson, the world’s first ironclad ram made entirely from scratch, was built in 1864, and served as the home port of the wooden gunboat Chattahoochee.
When the city fell to Union forces under Maj. Gen. James Wilson in April 1865, Jackson (also known as CSS Muscogee) and Chattahoochee were in port and quickly destroyed. Both ships were set on fire—Chattahoochee by Confedertate authorities as Wilson’s men approached—and cast adrift, eventually sinking several miles downstream. Their remains were salvaged in the early 1960s and are now the museum’s centerpiece exhibits.
The Jackson exhibit is particularly impressive. Visitors can view the wooden hull of the ironclad from a landing above the main deck as well as at deck level and from below the waterline. Museum curators have lit the exhibit so Jackson appears to be riding through the water in the late dusk. The hull is suspended above a translucent blue floor, and the recorded sound of lapping waves and the odor of charred wood help bring the moment to life.
Rising to the sides and above the hull is an iron frame that provides a full-scale view of the mammoth warship. Within the frame are eight large portals marking the location of Jackson’s gunports.
The ship was fitted with four pivoting 7-inch Brooke rifled cannons, two nonpivoting 6.4-inch Brooke rifled cannons and two 12-pound deck howitzers, which, despite their size, could be moved across the top of the casemate with little effort.
As one leaves the room, it’s hard to ignore the eerie feeling that Jackson, some 142 years after the war, still patrols the Chattahoochee River and guards the city that built it.
Chattahoochee, which has a 30-foot section of its hull on display in an adjoining gallery, also had a rich Civil War history. The sleek steam-powered frigate was commanded for a time by Catesby Jones, who also served as captain of CSS Virginia in the famous March 1862 clash with USS Monitor. Armed with four 32-pounders, one 9- inch Dahlgren and one rifled and banded 32-pounder, it was a formidable defender of Confederate interests between the port and the Gulf of Mexico until it was scuttled at the end of the war.
Two notable exhibit pieces that were salvaged from the river in 1963 are Chattahoochee’s enormous three-blade propeller, about 6 feet tall, and its fishhook-shaped anchor.
Another gallery holds reconstructions of the berth deck, wardroom and officers’ cabin of Union Admiral David Farragut’s flagship Hartford. Museum interpreters frequently use those facilities for living history activities that demonstrate the daily life of the Civil War sailor. On display in another gallery are replicas of the revolutionary turret of the famed ironclad Monitor and a part of its deck.
Among the museum’s cherished artifacts are the uniform coat worn by Captain Jones during the Virginia-Monitor fight and the original version of the Confederate Navy orders that gave him command of Chattahoochee in July 1862.
There also is a collection of rare Civil War naval flags, some more than 20 feet tall. Included in the display are the original battle flags of the Confederate warships Atlanta, Arkansas and Tennessee.
The museum maintains an ongoing effort to acquire original Civil War items and continually rotates the artifacts on display. For more information, call 706-327-9798, or visit online at http://www.portcolumbus.org.
Originally published in the January 2008 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.