ECU seeks new views on old ship

A rare Civil War ironclad, raised from a Georgia river bottom, is coming to life again on computer screens at East Carolina University.

After carefully measuring and drawing the remains of the Confederate ironclad ram C.S.S. Jackson in Columbus, Ga., the ECU team is back on campus turning the information into chunks of computer data. Using computer magic, they expect to see the Jackson in a way no one has seen it since 1865. The ship, sometimes called the “Muscogee,” was raised from the Chattahoochee River 30 years ago. Its planks and ribs are displayed at the Confederate Naval Museum in Columbus. A team of ECU students led by Gordon Watts, an underwater archaeologist, spent last week measuring and mapping the thick hull of the large vessel. Watts said the measurements, when entered into a computer system, will show how the Jackson looked and how it was built. He said no blueprints or accurate details of the ship were kept.

The vessel is one of only two Confederate Navy ironclads ever recovered for preservation. The other ironclad is the Ram Neuse in Kinston, N.C. By Civil War standards the 225 foot Jackson was a large and powerful warship. Six rifled guns, protected by four inches of armor plate backed by nearly two feet of wood, made the ship a dangerous weapon. Difficulties in obtaining armor plate, however, caused numerous delays in putting the ship into action. Construction of the vessel began at a Columbus shipyard in Dec. 1862. An attempt to launch the ship in early 1864 failed. The builders replaced the ship’s paddle wheel propulsion system with dual propellers or screws. It was launched again in Dec. of 1864.

Before the vessel could be fitted out and placed into action, Union troops captured it and set it on fire on April 17, 1865. It drifted about 33 miles down the Chatahoochee River before it sank. Volunteers salvaged the hull of the vessel in the early 1960s and turned it over to the Confederate Naval Museum. The museum has displayed the vessel for 30 years under a shelter. To collect the information about the ship, the students laid out squares across the vessel with string. The grid was composed of 16 squares. The students meticulously measured and drew to scale each every foot of the 180 feet of remaining hull structure.

The measurements, drawings and computer images will help historians know more about the vessel’s design and construction. In addition, the information will help the museum’s staff with their plans to move the vessel to a more protected facility. Watts said the computer-generated views of the ship could also be employed with futuristic “virtual reality” programs. With special goggles and controlling devices, an individual might someday visit the vessel, walk its decks and compartments and even command the ship in simulated combat with Union vessels. The later activity was the one for which the real C.S.S. Jackson was designed but never experienced.

ECU students working on the project are: Richard Mannesto of Marie, Mich.; Ray Tubby of Asbury Park, N.J.; Steve Gibbons of Lynchburg, Va.; Matt Russell of Los Angeles, Calif.; Adriane Askins of San Antonio, Tex.; Chris Oslen of Mora, Minn.; and Lex Turner of Raleigh.