Naval museum cuts ribbon on replica sidewheeler Water Witch

Notable Republicans from Abraham Lincoln to Bo Callaway were in attendance today as Columbus' National Civil War Naval Museum cut the ribbon on the 160-foot replica of a Union blockade ship captured by Confederate commandos near Savannah on June 3, 1864.

Local dignitaries then got to go on board the combination sidewheeler and sailing ship that now serves as the signature outdoor emblem of the 1002 Victory Drive museum. Before the ship was built, some passersby had no idea what the museum was.

"I've had people tell me when they came down here before, they couldn't tell whether this was a warehouse or a naval museum," Columbus Mayor Jim Wetherington told the audience of about 125 people gathered on a sunny but windy morning.

Bruce Smith, the museum's executive director, was just glad it finally quit raining. The cabins or coverings on the ship's paddewheels had been painted three times in the past four days, he said. Rain kept ruining the work.

Smith said the ship gives the museum a distinction that serves it well on the circuit of sites Civil War buffs travel, sometimes called the "cannonball circuit." It gives those tourists something besides a battlefield to see: "After you go to about the 14th battlefield, there's sort of a sameness there," he said.

Over the past few months, about 35 percent of the museum's visitors have said they stopped because they saw the ship outside, Smith said.

The character of Abraham Lincoln was played by actor Dennis Boggs. Georgia Republican Bo Callaway appeared as himself. He touted tourism as one of Georgia's most cost-efficient commercial endeavors, because the tourist comes to town to spend his money, but then he leaves, requiring no long-term investment in his welfare.

"You don't have to educate his children. You don't have to give him healthcare," Callaway said.

This Saturday Civil War re-enactors in sailor and marine uniforms will participate in a commissioning ceremony as the museum's annual RiverBlast event kicks off at 11 a.m. The event continues 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $10 for adults, $6 for students and free for children age 3 or younger.

After capturing the Water Witch in 1864, the Confederates at first ran it aground, then towed it loose and moved it upriver beneath a battery. They burned and sank the ship to keep the Union from recapturing it as forces under Gen. William T. Sherman approached the coast.

For more information, call 800-742-2811, www.portcolumbus.org.