USS Cairo Story

Bill Seratt

February 28

The USS Cairo Rise from the Murky Waters of the Yazoo River

From the very onset of the Civil War the Union Army knew that in order to win the war that they must have complete control of the Mississippi River.  To seize control of the river capturing Vicksburg was a must win for the Union troops.  Vicksburg’s position high on the river’s bluff combined with a dramatic hairpin curve in the river below would make this mission one of the war’s most challenging.  To this end, the U.S. Army commissioned the construction of seven ironclad warships known as “city class” gunboats as they were named for seven cities along the Mississippi River and its tributaries.  They were: USS Cairo, Corondelet, Cincinnati, Louisville, Mound City, Pittsburg and St. Louis (later renamed Baron De Kalb).

The “city class” gunboats were designed by Samuel M. Pook and built by legendary river engineer James Eads.  The Cairo was constructed at Mound City, Illinois and commissioned in January 1862.  The vessels drew only six feet while carrying 13 cannons.  Capable of eight knots, each bore 2.5 inches of armor on the casemates and half that on the pilot house.

The Cairo was engaged in limited action at Plum Point in May in 1862 and in the battle of Memphis in June.  On December 12, 1862, under the command of Lt. Commander Thomas O. Selfridge, Jr. a small flotilla travelled up the Yazoo River north of Vicksburg to destroy Confederate batteries and clear the river of torpedoes (water mines).  Seven miles up the river the flotilla came under fire and Selfridge ordered the guns to ready.  As the gunboat turned toward shore two explosions rocked the Cairo which tore gaping holes in the ship’s hull.  Within twelve minutes the Cairo lay 36 feet below the surface of the dark churning waters of the Yazoo River.  Miraculously there was no loss of life.  The Cairo became the first ship in history to be sunk by an electrically detonated torpedo. 

In the decades following the Civil War the Cairo was forgotten as it was covered by a shroud of silt and sand which acted as perseverative for the ship and its contents.  It was not until 1956 that Vicksburg National Military Park Historian, Edwin C. Bearss, accompanied by two local historians, Don Jacks and Warren Grabau, set out on a mission to find the Cairo’s watery grave.  In a fishing boat equipped only with a pocket compass and iron bar probes the three were successful in locating the location of the disaster.  The wreckage was confirmed as that of the Cairo three years later when divers brought up armored port covers to positively confirm the find.  As state, federal and local interest grew the funds were secured to raise the Cairo.

Hopes of lifting the ironclad and her cargo of artifacts intact were crushed in October of 1964 when three-inch cables being used to lift the Cairo cut deeply into its wooden hull.  A decision was made to cut the ship into three sections.  By the end of December the remains were placed on barges and transported to Ingalls Shipyard in Pascagoula, Mississippi for restoration.

In 1972 the U.S. Congress enacted legislation authorizing the National Park Service to accept title and to restore the gunboat for display in the Vicksburg National Military Park.  In June of 1977 the Cairo returned to Vicksburg as a major component in the interpretive experience of the Vicksburg National Military Park.  The gunboat and its artifacts can be seen along tour road at the U.S.S. Cairo Museum.