National Civil War Naval Museum
Picture the Golden Age of sea travel. Do you see a graceful clipper ship billowing under full sail? A majestic ocean liner slicing effortlessly through the waves? Nice -- but the truly eye-popping stars of the seas were the ironclads of the Civil War.
They were a real steampunk navy: unstoppable, bolt-studded, bobbing rhinoceroses, smokestacks belching black soot, lumbering leviathans wrapped in plate iron. Imagine Robot Wars in the water, with 200-foot-long contestants weighing 2,000 tons.
Most ironclads burned or sank or both, yet the National Civil War Naval Museum has a surprising amount of what's left. The museum is in Columbus, Georgia, 250 miles from the nearest ocean, but ironclads were mostly ships of rivers and bays. Columbus is on the Chattahoochee River, and its Confederate shipyard was as safely removed as a boat could get from the Gulf of Mexico.
The museum's star is the salvaged hulk of the CSS Jackson, dredged from the Chattahoochee a century after it was torched by Yankee raiders. It's showcased in a cavernous, air-conditioned room -- a big plus in steamy Georgia -- and kept dark as if to suggest its entombment in river mud. The Jackson's hull spreads outward like the half-gnawed ribcage of a wooden water monster. A "ghost ship" superstructure dangles over the wreck to show the parts that didn't survive.
A nearby electrolysis tank -- which we mistook for a Sink the Ironclad arcade game -- shows how the museum gets the rust out of waterlogged parts before they're put on display.
Outdoors is the museum's life-size recreation of another ship that didn't survive the war, the USS Water Witch. It's not an ironclad, because focus groups couldn't identify that an ironclad was even a ship. "We showed them drawings and they said, 'What is that thing?'" said Jon Ezzell, the museum's director of communication. "A bunker? A fort? A tank?"
The museum deep-sixed the ironclad and instead built a Civil War boat that looked more like a boat, and specifically chose the Water Witch because it was a Union vessel that had been captured by the Confederates. "It flew under both flags, so everybody's happy," said Jon.
More re-creations are inside. There's a full-size replica of the big turret of the Monitor, precise down to the cannonball dents from its battle with the Merrimack. A boy sailor "Powder Monkey" slumps on deck, probably wondering how to survive his enlistment (Too bad, kid; the Monitor sank in 1862). Next to the turret is another full-size replica, of the USS Hartford, whose creaky interior floors lead past a wardroom where costumed surgeons sometimes perform mock bloody operations on its dinner table.
The museum is perhaps most proud of its re-creation of the CSS Albemarle, yet another wartime casualty. This replica ironclad has actual slabs of the Jackson built into both sides of its entry gangway so that visitors can touch and feel the thickness of the plating. Inside, you can watch a "Battle Theater" video through a gun port that shows other ironclads sailing past, firing cannonballs that can be heard bouncing off the armor.
The museum displays captured ship flags; cannons, keg torpedoes, and boarding pikes that somehow survived the war; the blood-spattered coat of a Union doctor; models of the Monitor and Merrimack used in a 1995 Ted Turner TNT movie.
There's even another fossil-like shipwreck from Columbus, the CSS Chattahoochee, which escaped the Union army only to be set afire and sunk by its own crew. "They realized they had no place to go," said Jon.
Despite all the negativity and conflagrations that followed the ironclads, the museum displays three large murals that show all of the famous ships of the Civil War together, in an armada that never assembled.
It's a hopelessly crowded party of freak watercraft, and we imagined it as a portrait of Ironclad Heaven. "Here we are, side by side, floating around, chums at last!"