Friday, February 10, 2012

USS Cairo Ironclad

During our tour of the Vicksburg Battlefield, we came down a hill after passing the Navy memorial and, down below us, was this huge tent-like structure.

At first, we did not know what it was, but, as we got closer, we realized it was the USS Cairo gunboat reconstruction site. The U.S.S. Cairo (pronounced Kay-roh) 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.

This ironclad was soooo much larger than we ever expected. 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 and it is well worth the time to look around.

You can see the immense size of the ironclad with the person on the right.

Some dinner settings for the officers that was recovered from the wreck.

The museum had many many artifacts in some terrific displays.

Looking at the front with its three cannons looking forward.

The wood braces are there to keep the ironclad intact and resting solidly on the ground so as not to disturb it.

How did she sink?

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.

Discovery of her wreck

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. Perhaps with the new quarter that will be released in 2011 a fund could be established to enclose the best-preserved Civil War ironclad. 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.

You are allowed to walk right through the insides to see the boiler room, the cannon, the stern wheel and the pilothouse.

...looking right into the sun....accckkkk!

This is an original cannon. The rest are taken from other sites.

The USS Cairo carried thirteen big guns. This 32-pdr Navy smoothbore, mounted on its original carriage, could fire a solid 32-pound cannon ball about a mile. It required an eleven man crew to load, maneuver, and fire. 
The stern wheel which propelled the ironclad.

Inside looking at the guns on the starboard side.

Some of the steam boilers needed to push the ironclad.

More 13" guns. Remember, all of this was inside the ironclad, not on deck....must've been hot and loud.

This is part of the piston that was connected to the paddle wheels from the boilers.

The sides used railroad tracks to armor plate the ship.

How'd you like to have this coming at you? With only the guns showing...everything else was below the water line.
This was an unexpected site to come across while touring the battlefield. Kind of a tour stop on its own. The accompanying museum was loaded with artifacts, a movie showing how the Cairo was recovered and a scale model of the ship. The most amazing thing was how HUGE it was. We never never them to be so massive and loaded with so many cannon.

Kim and Steve

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