U. S. S. Cairo at Vicksburg National Military Park

James N.

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USS Cairo.jpg


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.

USS Cairo 001.jpg


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.
USS Cairo 003.jpg

USS Cairo 002.jpg


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.
USS Cairo 005.jpg

USS Cairo 004.jpg
 
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Mark F. Jenkins

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Roughly half the length of the sides were armored, starting behind the pilothouse and mostly covering the engines. It seems to have been of questionable value as protection, particularly as it was not backed by a full 2' of timber like the forward end of the casemate was. At Red River, the Pook Turtles dumped that side armor in the Red to lighten ship, and it appears that few or none bothered to replace it afterwards.
 

James N.

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I've always understood that the sides were at least partially armored, although it wouldn't make much difference against an underwater explosion.

The sides are armored about half or more, as can be seen from the photos; that was my mistaken generalization. You can, however, see that there's no armor protection on the stern; and as you say, the wooden hull wasn't proof against the torpedo!
 

Mark F. Jenkins

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A number of years back, a group decided to try to build a full-scale floating replica of a Pook Turtle in time for the Sesquicentennial. One of the proponents contacted me; I wished them luck but didn't see that they had much of a chance of success, especially as they wanted to build it authentically, with steam engine and wooden hull. I was right, but I take little pleasure in it; it sure would have been a sight to see.
 

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I could see having some faces of the casemate, like the stern, unarmored if you thought there would be minimal chance of them being targetted (though it could happen, as to Mark's friend Walke in Carondelet fighting Arkansas). Armoring part but not all of the sides seems a bit odd, though there was benefit in protecting the engines. It might also have helped the boats' trim, since there was a heavy weight of armor well forward.

Mark makes a good point about the wood backing being an important element of the protection system. If it stopped a projectile, it would be as much due to the strength and flexibility of the wood as the iron facing.
 

James N.

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A few years ago a reenacting friend of mine, James Langley, from McAllister, Okla. and a member of the U. S. Army's hazmat unit at the ammunition plant there, was called to detonate Cairo's ammunition that had been on display INSIDE the museum where somebody had similarly noticed they were still LIVE! Thay were taken to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Waterworks Experiment Station there and deactivated or detonated. Jim did a proper evaluation of the explosiveness of the century-old shells that had lain submerged for 98 years, and found them still plenty powerful!
 

Mark F. Jenkins

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Mark makes a good point about the wood backing being an important element of the protection system. If it stopped a projectile, it would be as much due to the strength and flexibility of the wood as the iron facing.

Compressed cotton could do it also, as the CSS Arkansas proved. Even some projectiles that penetrated the iron armor never made it any farther than the cotton/wood backing layer.
 

Mark F. Jenkins

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A few years ago a reenacting friend of mine, James Langley, from McAllister, Okla. and a member of the U. S. Army's hazmat unit at the ammunition plant there, was called to detonate Cairo's ammunition that had been on display INSIDE the museum where somebody had similarly noticed they were still LIVE! Thay were taken to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Waterworks Experiment Station there and deactivated or detonated. Jim did a proper evaluation of the explosiveness of the century-old shells that had lain submerged for 98 years, and found them still plenty powerful!

Aw nuts, they actually detonated them instead of clearing them? :thumbsdown:
 

James N.

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Heck yeah, they were still loaded! It was still in the middle of Rebeldom! I've been there and I saw how many CBFs, Stars and Bars, and Stainless Banners are still flying around there! :laugh:

Sounds like you were there this summer when I was - The SCV was holding their annual convention downtown!
 

James N.

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Aw nuts, they actually detonated them instead of clearing them? :thumbsdown:

I know Jim detonated at least some of them, because he wanted to do a proper "official" ordnance study on the capabilities of these shells, which he subsequently published in some U.S. Army ( maybe online ) periodical.
 
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A few years ago a reenacting friend of mine, James Langley, from McAllister, Okla. and a member of the U. S. Army's hazmat unit at the ammunition plant there, was called to detonate Cairo's ammunition that had been on display INSIDE the museum where somebody had similarly noticed they were still LIVE! Thay were taken to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Waterworks Experiment Station there and deactivated or detonated. Jim did a proper evaluation of the explosiveness of the century-old shells that had lain submerged for 98 years, and found them still plenty powerful!
I've read the stories of the amateur relic hunters blowing up the backyard tool shed fooling around with a fresh dug projectile. But when I'm in a museum, I like to believe the experts have taken care of deactivation and such.:bomb:
 

James N.

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I've read the stories of the amateur relic hunters blowing up the backyard tool shed fooling around with a fresh dug projectile. But when I'm in a museum, I like to believe the experts have taken care of deactivation and such.:bomb:

It amazes me that the NPS didn't "catch on" to this when the museum was created and the exhibits installed in the first place! It's also maddening how poorly the salvage operation was conducted, partly due to unseasonable low water in the Yazoo; and how totally negligent and incompetent at preservation the city was once Cairo was raised. The ship was completely intact, but probably half the wood was subsequently lost to rot and termites in the decade before being brought here by the NPS.
 

Mark F. Jenkins

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To be fair, the budget they could scrape together for the raising and restoration probably wouldn't keep the power on in the museum today. In one of my favorite anecdotes, Ed Bearss has related how he went on the TV game show the $64,000 Question as one of the "expert panelists" to raise seed money for the project.
 
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