The U.S.S. Cairo was one of seven ironclad gunboats named in honor of towns along the
and Ohio rivers. These powerful ironclads were formidable vessels, each mounting thirteen big guns (cannons).
On them rested in large part, Northern hopes to regain control of the lower Mississippi River and
split the Confederacy in two.
USS Cairo was a City-class ironclad gunboat constructed for the Union Navy by James B. Eads and Co. in 1861. She was the first vessel of the City class ironclads, also called the Cairo class, commissioned as part of the Union Army's Western Gunboat Flotilla on the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers and their tributaries until transferred to the Navy 1 October 1862 with the other river gunboats.
Active in the occupation of Clarksville, Tennessee, 17 February 1862, and of Nashville, Tennessee, 25 February, Cairo stood down the river 12 April escorting mortar boats to begin the lengthy operations against Fort Pillow. An engagement with Confederate gunboats at Plum Point Bend on 11 May marked a series of blockading and bombardment activities which culminated in the abandonment of the Fort by its defenders on 4 June.
Two days later, 6 June 1862, Cairo joined in the triumph of seven Union ships and a tug over eight Confederate gunboats off Memphis, Tennessee, an action in which five of the opposing gunboats were sunk or run ashore, two seriously damaged, and only one managed to escape. That night Union forces occupied the city. Cairo returned to patrol on the Mississippi until 21 November when she joined the Yazoo Expedition.
On 12 December 1862, while clearing mines from the river preparatory to the attack on Haines Bluff, Mississippi, Cairo struck a torpedo detonated by volunteers hidden behind the river bank and sank in 12 minutes; there were no casualties. Cairo became the first armored warship sunk by an electrically detonated mine.
Like many of the Mississippi theatre ironclads, Cairo had its armament changed over life of the vessel. To expedite the entrance of Cairo into service, she and the other City-class ships were fitted with whatever weapons were available; then had their weapons upgraded as new pieces became available. Though the 8 inch Dahlgren smoothbore cannons were fairly modern most of the other original armaments were antiquated; such as the 32-pounders, or modified; such as the 42-pounder "rifles" which were in fact, old smoothbores that had been gouged out to give them rifling. These 42-pounder weapons were of particular concern to military commanders because they were structurally weaker and more prone to exploding than purpose-built rifled cannons. Additionally, the close confines of riverine combat greatly increased the threat of boarding parties. The 12-pounder howitzer was equipped to address that concern and was not used in regular combat.
Over the years the gunboat was forgotten and her watery grave was slowly covered by a shroud of silt and sand. Impacted in mud, Cairo became a time capsule in which her priceless artifacts were preserved. Her whereabouts became a matter of speculation as members of the crew had died and local residents were unsure of the location.
By studying contemporary documents and maps, Edwin C. Bearss, a historian at Vicksburg National Military Park, was able to plot the approximate site of the wreck. With the help of a pocket compass and iron bar probes, Bearss and two companions, Don Jacks and Warren Grabau, set out to discover the grave of the Cairo in 1956. The three searchers were reasonably convinced they had found the Cairo, but three years lapsed before divers brought up armored port covers to confirm the find. A heavy accumulation of silt, swift current, and the ever-muddy river deterred the divers as they explored the gunboat. Local enthusiasm and interest began to grow in 1960 with the recovery of the pilothouse, an 8 inch smoothbore cannon, its white oak carriage, and other artifacts well preserved by the Yazoo River mud. With financial support from the State of Mississippi, the Warren County Board of Supervisors and funds raised locally, efforts to salvage the gunboat began in earnest.
Hopes of lifting the ironclad and her cargo of artifacts intact were crushed in October 1964 when the three inch cables being used to lift the Cairo cut deeply into its wooden hull. It then became a question of saving as much of the vessel as possible. A decision was made to cut the Cairo into three sections. By the end of December the battered remains were put on barges and towed to Vicksburg, Mississippi. In the summer of 1965 the barges carrying the Cairo were towed to Ingalls Shipyard on the Gulf Coast in Pascagoula, Mississippi. There the armor was removed, cleaned and stored. The two engines were taken apart, cleaned and reassembled. Sections of the hull were braced internally and a sprinkler system was operated continually to keep the white oak structural timbers from warping and checking. On 3 September 1971, the Cairo was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
In 1972, the United States Congress enacted legislation authorizing the National Park Service to accept title to Cairo and restore the gunboat for display in Vicksburg National Military Park. Delays in funding the project halted progress until June 1977, when the vessel was transported to the park and partially reconstructed on a concrete foundation near the Vicksburg National Cemetery. A shelter to cover the vessel was completed in October 1980, with the museum opening in November. The original space-frame shelter has recently been replaced by a tension-fabric system to provide better cover.
The recovery of artifacts from Cairo revealed a treasure trove of weapons, munitions, naval stores, and personal gear of the sailors who served on board. The gunboat and its artifacts can now be seen along the tour road at the USS Cairo Museum. These even include a sailor's rope knife in very good condition, as reported in Knives and their Values, 4th edition by Bernard Levine.
The USS Cairo has been degrading since been exposed to the elements, bird droppings, and vandals who have grabbed a piece of her hull. There are only 3 surviving Civil War-era ironclads in existence, CSS Neuse, USS Cairo, and CSS Jackson; soon Cairo will be the only one outdoors in the brutal Southern climate.
Open all year except Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Year's Day
Oct - Mar 8:30 am - 5 pm
Apr - Sep 9:30 am - 6 pm
USS Cairo Gunboat and Museum
Vicksburg National Military Park