Monday, November 27, 2017

Civil War "City Class" Ironclad Gun Boat "Cairo" - The Ironclad Flotilla

During our trip to the Vicksburg National Military Park we were able to view the "Cairo" which was an ironclad paddle wheeler that was used during the Civil War.  It was sunk in the Yazoo River on December 12th 1862.

"In 1862, in one of the South's most amazing secret operations, a Confederate team, using newly invented explosive mines, blew up the USS Cairo, one of the Union's most feared ironclad gunboats. It sank within minutes.

The USS Cairo is the only remaining vessel from the Union navy's river fleet. For 102 years, the ironclad rested deep in the mud of the Yazoo River. In 1964 it was rediscovered and salvaged. Now the USS Cairo is one of the premier exhibits at the Vicksburg National Military Park. This historic vessel, its entire cargo of weapons and personal effects, and its role in the war continue to spark the imagination of Civil War buffs and thousands of tourists." Source: The University Press of Mississippi

On the heels of the defeat of Union forces at Fredericksburg, Virginia, the sinking of the Cairo was another humiliating loss for the Federal government. This 175 foot long, 512-ton gunboat was protected by 2 ½ inch plate iron sheets backed by a two foot thickness of white oak timbers, which would take the shock of shells hitting the hull.

"The Cairo saw action at the occupations of Clarksville and Nashville in February, in April at Fort Pillow, and at Memphis in May, 1862. She was also part of the Union fleet that engaged Confederate warships south of Memphis in June 1862. She had a short life as she sank less than a year after being commissioned on January 16, 1862. 

A History Lesson

“The U.S.S. Cairo was one of seven ironclad gunboats named in honor of towns along the upper Mississippi and Ohio rivers. These powerful ironclads were formidable vessels, each mounting thirteen big guns (cannon). On them rested in large part, Northern hopes to regain control of the lower Mississippi River and split the Confederacy in two.

The “city class” gunboats were designed by Samuel M. Pook and built by river engineer James B. Eads. Cairo was constructed at Mound City, Illinois, and commissioned in January 1862… The Cairo’s skipper, Lt. Commander Thomas O. Selfridge, Jr., was rash and ambitious, a stern disciplinarian, but an aggressive and promising young officer.

On the cold morning of December 12, 1862, Selfridge led a small flotilla up the Yazoo River, north of Vicksburg, to destroy Confederate batteries and clear the channel of torpedoes (underwater mines). As the Cairo reached a point seven miles north of Vicksburg the flotilla came under fire and Selfridge ordered the guns to ready.

As the gunboat turned towards shore disaster struck. Cairo was rocked by two explosions in quick succession which tore gaping holes in the ship’s hull. Within twelve minutes the ironclad sank into six (6) fathoms (36 feet) of water without any loss of life. Cairo became the first ship in history to be sunk by an electrically detonated torpedo (a mine). New theories speculate that it was just ordinary mines that the ship struck. So I supposed the cause of sinking is still being investigated at some level.

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, Historian at Vicksburg National Military Park, was able to plot the approximate site of the wreck" Source: CJ Johnson "The Choctaw Plaindealer"

Raising and Conservation 

It took years to determine how to raise the Cairo, clean and restore the vessel, as well as fund the project. The USS Cairo gunboat is now on display at the Vicksburg National Military Park, next to a museum, which displays numerous artifacts recovered from the Cairo."

When viewing the Cairo you cannot help but marvel at the size of the ship. As you view the photos below you can easily determine what was original and what is now a mock up of the ship built from it's original plans.  Enjoy your tour.

The military park itself is impressive but the remarkably preserved Cairo is the crown Jewel of the tour. Do yourself a favor, if you are a history buff don't miss going to this place.

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