From the very beginning of the Civil War, both sides understood the importance of control of the Mississippi River. To that end, the United States government built gunboats specifically designed for military operations in the Mississippi and its tributaries. Among those river vessels was a series of seven ironclad gunboats designed by naval architect Samuel M. Pook and built by engineer James B. Eads known as the City Class gunboats. Each was named for a town or city along the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. They were Cairo, Carondelet, Cincinnati, Louisville, Mound City, Pittsburg, and St. Louis (later renamed Baron De Kalb). Although the U.S.S Cairo’s military career was relatively brief, it has a fascinating history.
The U.S.S. Cairo was commissioned on January 15th , 1862. The vessel was named after Cairo, Illinois, and not the city in Egypt. It was 175 feet in length, and just over 51 feet wide. Its two coal fired steam engines propelled the vessel at a speed of six knots. Its armor plating was 2 1/2 inches thick. Cairo was armed with thirteen heavy cannon. The ship was manned a crew of 158 enlisted men led by 17 officers for a total compliment of 175.
Cairo spent the rest of the winter and early spring of 1862 on patrol duty on the Mississippi, Cumberland, and Tennessee Rivers. The vessel saw action at the Battle of Plum Point, near Confederate Fort Pillow, Tennessee, on the Mississippi River. Cairo was not heavily engaged at Plum Point, though several other City Class ships were. It saw additional action at the Battle of Memphis on June 6th. That action resulted in the Federal fleet capturing the Tennessee city.
In December 1862, Cairo was operating on the Mississippi River near Vicksburg, Mississippi. On the morning of December 12th, Cairo and four other vessels steamed up the Yazoo River just north of Vicksburg on a mission to destroy Confederate artillery and clear the river of torpedoes as they were called then, but what would be called underwater mines today. After steaming 18-20 miles up the Yazoo, the flotilla encountered the mines and began to clear them out of the river. Cairo was in the center of the river channel when an explosion, or possibly two in rapid sequence, blasted the ship under its port bow.
Cairo sank in 36 feet of water in just 12 minutes. Though some crewmen were injured, none of the injuries were serious and there were no fatalities. It was the first ship ever to be sunk by an electrically detonated mine. For 94 years, the U.S.S. Cairo sat undisturbed on the bottom of the Yazoo River.
Then in 1956, Vicksburg National Military Park Historian Edwin C. Bearss and two companions set out to find the Cairo. Their approach was low tech. They used a motorboat and compass to detect any large masses of iron below the surface, plus a long metal bar for probing below. It paid off when a promising mass of metal was discovered. A diver ventured down into the dark water and confirmed that it was indeed, the wreck of a vessel, most likely the Cairo.
As time went on, more artifacts and pieces of the ship were brought to the surface. The ship had been covered with silt and mud that acted as a preservative. In 1964, an attempt was made to raise the sunken vessel intact; however, the cables used to lift it cut into the hull of the ship. It was decided the only way to raise the ship was to cut it into three sections and lift each piece out separately. This was successful, and the raised sections were placed on barges and taken to a shipyard in Pascagula, Mississippi for restoration.
The interior of the ship contained vast numbers of artifacts preserved by the Yazoo silt and mud. All types of weapons, eating utensils, medical equipment, and personal items were present, and in excellent condition.
Restoration of the U.S.S Cairo took several years, partly due to the amount of work involved, and partly due to difficulties in getting funding for the project. Finally, in 1977 the ship was brought to Vicksburg National Military Park and placed on display next to a museum housing artifacts recovered from the vessel. The ship and museum displays are a high point of any visit to Vicksburg.
For the Vicksburg National Military Park virtual museum exhibit of the U.S.S. Cairo follow this link.
Bearss, Edwin C. Hardluck Ironclad: The Sinking and Salvage of the Cairo
Baton Rouge, Louisiana: The Louisiana State University Press, 1980.
Joiner, Gary D. Mr. Lincoln’s Brown Water Navy: The Mississippi Squadron (American Crisis (Rowman & Littlefield))
Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc. 2007.
Kennelley, Christopher. “From the Yazoo Mud”, America’s Civil War, March 2006.
U.S. War Department. Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion. Washington D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1895-1929.