Featured Book Reviewer
- Feb 23, 2013
- East Texas
December 12, 1862, naval history was made when the Union ironclad U.S.S. Cairo was sunk in the Yazoo River by an electrically-detonated underwater mine, then known as a "torpedo". Cairo ( pronounced "Kay-row", like the syrup and named for the Illinois town of the same name - and pronounciation - at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers ) was one of the so-called "Pook Turtles" designed by engineer Samuel Pook and built by James Eads. A revolutionary design, the "turtles" were armored on the front only, the direction from which enemy fire was assumed to come. Their conventional wooden sides and hull made them vulnerable to "infernal machines" like the Confederate torpedo, a huge glass whisky demijohn ( jug ) filled with black powder and suspended just below the water's surface with a copper wire running into it from the shore by which it was detonated by a human operator using a galvanized battery.
Cairo lay largely forgotten for the next 98 years until a group led by Vicksburg NMP Chief Historian Ed Bearss discovered the hulk resting on the bottom of the Yazoo north of Vicksburg. The Union navy had removed her funnels and flagstaff to discourage her salvaging by the Confederates, apparantly then forgetting about her. When raised, the vessel and her contents, including the complete component of cannon and shot, served as a virtual "time capsule" of life and service in the Civil War-era U.S. Navy. Sadly, the old vessel, retained as the property of the city of Vicksburg, was allowed over the next decade to steadily decompose in the inhospitable Gulf climate at Pascagoula, Miss., where she was supposed to be restored. Unfortunately, the city was never able to realize its grandiose dream, relinquishing the hulk to the NPS who salvaged as much as possible for display inside Vicksburg NMP.
Cairo now rests outside the National Cemetery and beside a specially-built museum which houses the hundreds of artifacts that were discovered in the muck and silt which filled the vessel when she was raised. The NPS always valued the contents more than the ship, but has done as good a job as possible in stabilizing the wooden remains, probably about half of which survive. The accompanying photos date from a visit in 2007, though I was also there earlier this summer and can say she looks about the same. In the starboard view, note the railroad rails used as "armor" on the casemate sides. The octagonal iron-plated structure with sloping sides atop the casemate is the pilot house. The smokestacks or funnels, removed by the Federals at the time of her sinking, have been suggested in modern wood in a method known as "ghosting". Note also the large tent-like canvas cover that somewhat protects the ship from the elements.
The stern views show what's left of the paddle wheel, only its twisted iron frame; note also the open space to allow it to operate. Two cannon are mounted on either side to allow some protection rearward. The guns and their carriages are all original.
These two views of the starboard side show the flat iron plates ( the rails were bent and used on the forward curve of the hull only ) and articulated shutters on the gunports. Various now-lost superstructure elements have also been "ghosted" for a better idea of Cairo's wartime appearance.