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Replica ironclad.

National Civil War Naval Museum

Field review by the editors.

Columbus, Georgia

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.

Hulk of the CSS Jackson.
Hulk of the CSS Jackson.

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.

The museum has recreations as well, including 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.

CSS Albemarle.
CSS Albemarle replica.

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.

Mural of ironclad heaven.

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!"

National Civil War Naval Museum

1002 Victory Dr., Columbus, GA
Best access is to exit I-185 at exit 1 (Victory Drive), drive five miles west, and stop at the first big ship on the left.
Su-M 12:30-4:30, Tu-Sa 10-4:30. (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Adults $6.50, active military and seniors (65+) $5.50, students $5
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
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Nearby Offbeat Places

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In the region:
Gravity Hill, Fort Gaines, GA - 50 mi.

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