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Title: U.S.S. Cairo - The Story of a Civil War Gunboat
Author: United States. National Park Service
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "U.S.S. Cairo - The Story of a Civil War Gunboat" ***

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    [Illustration: Period photograph of gunboat]

                    The Story of a Civil War Gunboat

    [Illustration: U.S.S. CAIRO]

                 A Narrative of Her Wartime Adventures
                       by Virgil Carrington Jones
                   An Account of Her Raising in 1964
                         by Harold L. Peterson_

                         _National Park Service
                    U.S. Department of the Interior
                         Washington, D.C. 1971_

    _The U.S.S. _Cairo_ was sunk in the Yazoo River by a Confederate
 torpedo in December 1862. A century later, she was raised and salvaged
 along with thousands of priceless artifacts. The boat, currently owned
   by the State of Mississippi, is now at Pascagoula, Miss., awaiting
 The artifacts, through an agreement with the State of Mississippi and
 the Warren County (Miss.) Board of Supervisors, have been entrusted to
    the National Park Service for preservation, care, and display at
                   Vicksburg National Military Park.
    This publication is designed to interpret both the boat and the
                   artifacts to visitors at the park.
 Inquiries about the _Cairo_ should be addressed to the Superintendent,
    Vicksburg National Military Park, Box 349, Vicksburg, MS 39180._

              _For sale by the Superintendent of Documents
                    U.S. Government Printing Office
                         Washington, D.C. 20402
                            Price—80 cents_


For 11 years, I was closely associated with the _Cairo_ project, and I
know how difficult it is to place the undertaking in its proper
perspective and to dispassionately evaluate its historical significance.
I was accordingly delighted to learn that Virgil Carrington Jones, who
needs no introduction to readers interested in Civil War partisan
operations and action afloat, had agreed to chronicle the story of the
_Cairo_ and her rendezvous with destiny on the Yazoo in December 1862;
and that Harold L. Peterson, whose publications on arms and armament are
legion, would survey, describe, and evaluate the thousands of artifacts

Jones and Peterson, as the readers of this booklet will discover, have
written of the _Cairo_ and her treasure trove of artifacts with keen
insight and understanding. Their accounts will spark the reader’s
interest, and, in conjunction with the salvaged objects themselves, lead
to a better understanding of how bluejackets lived and fought in our
Civil War.

                                                      —_Edwin C. Bearss_

              _The Wartime Adventures of the U.S.S._ Cairo

    [Illustration: 1]

    [Illustration: _Eads ironclads under construction at the Carondelet
    shipyards near St. Louis. The _Cairo_, although not built here,
    would have looked much the same at this stage._
                                                      National Archives]

Some men and some ships seem fated for bad luck. It was the Union
ironclad _Cairo’s_ fate to have as her second and last captain a man
who, although a hard worker, was a repeated slave to misfortune. Three
of the vessels on which he served, their names all beginning with the
letter C, went to the bottom in the order named—the _Cumberland_, the
_Cairo_, and the _Conestoga_—no matter if he was credited with gallantry
and exonerated of blame by some of his superiors.

Thomas O. Selfridge, Jr., son of the commandant of the Navy Yard at Mare
Island, Calif., was a member of seafaring family. He was dedicated and
ambitious, but, as fate would have it, he served mostly on doomed
vessels and was unable to get along with his men. Perhaps his fellow
seamen had reason to be displeased with him, for he seemed always to
flirt with disaster, barely escaping further serious mishap early in the
war while experimenting with the crude submarine _Alligator_ on a trial
run from the Washington Navy Yard. So bad was his luck that the
_Cairo’s_ career ended just 3 months to the day after Selfridge first
stepped aboard her.

The _Cairo_ was one of the weapons designed by the North to wrest the
lower Mississippi River away from the South, a move decided on early in
the war as part of a program of vigorous action needed to bring victory.
One of those who expounded the strategy was James B. Eads of St. Louis,
Mo., who had retired at 37 after making a fortune salvaging wrecked
craft on the Western rivers. An engineer known to every riverman on the
Mississippi, he had had long experience at the business of designing and
building boats.

Soon after the fall of Fort Sumter in April 1861, Eads was called to
Washington to present his recommendations at a Cabinet meeting. His
strategy seemed simple: seize control of the lower Mississippi, the main
channel through which flowed the South’s food supplies, and leave open
as avenues of commerce in the Mississippi basin only the Tennessee and
Cumberland Rivers and the railroads from Louisville to Nashville and
Chattanooga—all of which could be easily controlled. The result, as he
saw it, would be starvation for the Confederates in less than 6 months.
To carry out his plan, he urged the North to build a fleet of river
gunboats, an inland navy.

Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles liked Eads’ ideas, but, before they
could be acted upon, a brief flareup of jealousy between the War and
Navy Departments created interference. At this time the Army had
jurisdiction over the inland waters, while the Navy’s only
responsibility was to furnish guns and crews for the vessels the Army
acquired. Secretary of War Simon Cameron had initially thought Eads’
proposals absurd, but when it seemed that the Navy Department intended
to go ahead with them, he reversed himself and insisted that the fitting
out of river gunboats be handled by the Army. Cameron’s vacillation
created so much confusion that prospects for an early decision in the
matter were now remote. Thus stymied, Eads left Washington.

It was mid-summer before Eads noticed advertisements in St. Louis
newspapers inviting bids to build the gunboats. According to the
specifications, the vessels were to be 175 feet long, with a 50-foot
beam, and to draw 6 feet of water. They would have flat bottoms, with
three keels, and an oblong casemate sloping up to a flat spardeck, 45°
in front and 35° on the side. The forward end was to be pierced for
three guns, the port and starboard beams for seven guns each, and the
stern for three guns. (As built, however, there were four ports on each
side of the casemate, three on the forward face, and two on the after

Each vessel was to be fitted out with a paddle wheel, two engines, five
36-inch boilers 24 feet long with a firebox under each, and two 44-inch
chimneys 28 feet high. They would have plain cabins with two staterooms,
two messrooms, and eight staterooms for officers, as well as suitable
magazines, shell rooms, and shot lockers. Officers’ quarters were to be
equipped with berths, bureaus, and washstands.

When bids were opened August 5, 1861, Eads’ was the lowest of seven: In
it he agreed to build four to 16 of the boats, at a price of $89,600
each, by October 5 of that year. If not delivered on time, he would
forfeit on each vessel $600 per day it was late. The contract Eads
signed called for seven gunboats, moved the delivery date to October 10,
and reduced the forfeit to $250 per day. Every 20 days, superintendents
appointed by the Government would estimate the amount of work done, and
the Treasury would pay Eads 75 percent of the estimate. The Government
retained the right to suspend work at any time, and it was definitely
specified that no part of the contract was to be sublet. Government
representatives would inspect the material used in constructing the
vessels and reject all considered defective. To his benefit, Eads
obtained an agreement that the Government would require no change in
specifications which might delay completion of the contract as

    [Illustration: _James B. Eads._
                                                    Library of Congress]

Eads began work immediately, starting four of the vessels at the
Carondelet Marine Ways on the outskirts of St. Louis, and three at the
Marine Railway and Ship Yard at Mound City, Ill. Labor troubles set in
early. Although wages were comparable with rates prior to the war,
workers threatened to strike for more money. The contractor in the
meantime advertised for additional boat carpenters, offering to pay $2
per 10-hour day and 25 cents per hour overtime.

By the end of August, Eads had about 600 men and 12 sawmills at work on
the seven hulls. The first estimate of work done, submitted to the
Government on August 27, amounted to $58,315 and was accompanied by a
statement that the smallness of the sum did not mean that matters were
not being pushed with vigor. In mid-September, when Eads sent in a
second estimate, he complained of not having received even $1 on a
contract involving an outlay of nearly $700,000. He said that, despite
the inconvenience brought upon him by the Government, he was still
confident he could fulfill his contract. Newspapers came to his defense,
reporting that, without any money in advance, he had 800 workmen on the
two jobs, as well as one steamboat and four barges engaged in
transporting lumber from sawmills in Missouri, Illinois, Ohio, and
Kentucky, and along the Missouri River. But even the reporters
inspecting the work doubted that the vessels would be ready on schedule.

The first boat was launched October 12, two days late. It came down the
runway at Carondelet in the presence of a large crowd and was promptly
named the _Carondelet_. It was mid-January before the _Cairo_ was
commissioned. By that time, the Western Flotilla had come under the
command of Andrew H. Foote, formerly commandant of the Brooklyn Navy
Yard and a veteran of 40 years’ service in the Navy. It was Foote who
decided that the ironclads would be named for cities and towns along the
Ohio and upper Mississippi Rivers, and not for Union military leaders,
as Eads had proposed.

As an aftermath of the campaign to get the ironclads built, Eads made
claims against the Government for failing to make prompt payments on
estimates, maintaining this had delayed completion of the contract.
Moreover, he charged that the numerous changes Foote had insisted upon
had added materially to his costs, for which he wished to be reimbursed,
and had delayed the delivery date. In return, the Government made claims
against the builder for tardiness in delivering the boats. Finally, a
member of the Quartermaster General’s staff was assigned to make a study
of the contract, and the subsequent report led to a satisfactory
settlement without penalty upon either party.

The _Cairo’s_ first captain was 39-year-old Lt. Nathaniel Bryant, member
of a Maine shipbuilding family and formerly assigned to the steam sloop
_Richmond_. The commissioning of the new vessel took place on January
16. She was newly painted and her decks had been holystoned (scrubbed)
until, as one member of the crew recorded, they were as white as linen
sheets. Everything was snug and clean from top to bottom. On board were
14 guns, ranging from rifled 42-pounders to a 12-pounder howitzer.

In the beginning, the _Cairo’s_ engines failed to function properly, and
she was taken to an anchorage near Cairo for repairs. While lying there
with a skeleton crew, news was received of the Union victory scored by
ironclads at Fort Henry. The story was different at Fort Donelson, where
Foote’s gunboats were mauled by Confederate shore batteries, but the
_Cairo_ men complained because they had been unable to take part in
either affair.

On February 16, a month after her commissioning, Foote ordered the
_Cairo_ to the Cumberland River. As she moved up the Ohio, she met a
steamboat bringing news that Fort Donelson had surrendered. Her crew did
more grumbling, fearing the war would end before they had a chance to
fire at the enemy.

Following a conference between Foote and Gen. Ulysses S. Grant,
commanding at Fort Donelson, the _Cairo_, with the _Conestoga_, was
ordered on a reconnaissance to Clarksville, Tenn. Along the way they
passed Forts Defiance and Clark, both of them abandoned and flying white
flags of surrender. At Clarksville they found the Confederates had also
evacuated that point.

The _Cairo_ remained at Clarksville on a standby basis for several days
and then was ordered to Nashville, where she arrived on February 25,
again to find that the Confederates had gone. She lay idle in the
Cumberland for several weeks; then she was ordered to the Tennessee
River, reaching Savannah, Tenn., where Grant had his headquarters, on
the evening of March 31.

    [Illustration: _Only known photograph of the U.S.S. _Cairo_, taken
    early in 1862 while she was being outfitted at Cairo, Ill._
                                                    Library of Congress]

    [Illustration: U.S.S. _CAIRO_]

  _Hammock berthing (port and starboard)_
  _Three 8″ Navy smoothbores (forward ports)_
  _Load waterline_
  _Chain locker_
  _Commissary stores_
  _Launch (port) Cutter (starboard)_
  _Cutter (port and starboard)_
  _32-pounder Navy smoothbores_
  _Shell rooms (port and starboard)_
  _Magazine (port)_
  _Stores (port and starboard)_

  _U.S.S._ Cairo
  _Type and class: Ironclad River Gunboat, City Class_
  _Length: 175 ft._
  _Breadth: 51 ft. 2 in._
  _Full load keel draft: 6 ft._
  _Tonnage: 512_
  _Number of keels: 3_
  _Armament: 3 4-pounder Army rifles, 3 64-pounder Navy smoothbores, 6
          32-pounder Navy smoothbores, and 1 30-pounder Parrott_
  _Bow ports: 3_
  _Side ports: 4 each side_
  _Stern ports: 2_
  _Paint Colors: Black exterior, whitewashed interior, colored bands for
          identification on chimneys._

    [Illustration: _Deck Plan of the_ Cairo (_scale ¼″ : 4′_)]

  _2½″ × 13″ iron plates_
  _42-pounder Army rifles (port and starboard)_
  _Three 8″ Navy smoothbores (forward ports)_
  _1¼″ plating_
  _32-pounder Navy smoothbores (port and starboard)_
  _Officers’ quarters_
  _Captain’s cabin_
  _2½″ plating_
  _32-pounder Navy smoothbores_

  _Thickness of plate armor: 2½ in._
  _Total weight of plate armor: 122 tons_
  _Plate armor material: Charcoal iron_
  _Wood backing for armor on three front panels of pilothouse: 19½ in._
  _Wood backing for armor on five side and back panels of pilothouse: 12
  _Thickness of casemate timbers and sheathing: 26 in._
  _Location of plate armor: Casemate front and casement sides abreast

    [Illustration: _Bow of the_ Cairo (_scale 1/4″ : 4′_)]

  _Hammock berthing_
  _Hammock berthing_
  _Forward end of boilers_
  _2½″ × 13″ iron plates_
  _32-pounder Navy smoothbores (port and starboard)_
  _Load waterline_

  _Number and type of engines: Two reciprocating steam-non-condensing_
  _Number of boilers: 5_
  _Fuel: Coal_
  _Fuel consumption per hour: 18 to 20 bu. (1,980 lb.)_
  _Crew: 17 officers, 27 petty officers, 111 seamen, 3 landsmen, 1
          apprentice, 12 firemen, and 4 coal heavers_

On April 1 the _Cairo_, with the gunboats _Lexington_ and _Tyler_,
accompanied Brig. Gen. William T. Sherman’s command on an expedition
against the Confederate batteries at Eastport, Miss., and Chickasaw,
Ala. At Eastport, guns were run out and a few rounds fired, but there
was no reply. The Confederates had fled. Chickasaw also was found
deserted. Although the expedition proved disappointing, it did give the
men on the _Cairo_ their first chance, except in practice, to exercise
their guns.

Upon her return from Eastport and Chickasaw, the _Cairo_ received orders
to move to the Cairo Naval Station and defend it against a threatened
Confederate attack. Foote had learned that the South had completed 13
gunboats at New Orleans, and he feared these would be joined with the
ram _Manassas_ and run up the Mississippi against the Union fleet and
bases. The _Cairo_ arrived at the naval station on April 5. The
following day the Shiloh campaign opened, giving her crew new cause to
complain about their inability to take part in battle action.

While the vessel lay at Cairo, Lieutenant Bryant took advantage of the
opportunity to strengthen her pilothouse. His action was based on what
had happened to Union gunboats at Fort Donelson (where the Confederates
scored damaging hits by centering on the pilothouses, killing and
wounding several men, among them Flag Officer Foote, who was struck on
the ankle by a piece of iron). Other changes included the addition of
timber, iron plating, and flaps.

The work was completed by April 10 and Bryant, following orders, set out
the next day for Island No. 10. There he joined a fleet of transports,
mortar boats, gunboats, and tugs, which moved down the Mississippi
several miles and anchored off New Madrid, Mo. The next point of attack
would be Fort Pillow, a stronghold guarding the approach to Memphis, but
the _Cairo’s_ assignment was to wait behind with the unwieldy mortar

By remaining with the mortars, the _Cairo’s_ crew missed the flurry of
action that took place with some Confederate boats at Hale’s Point, 50
miles or so below New Madrid, As the Southern craft turned about and
fled downstream, the Union fleet followed to within range of the guns at
Fort Pillow, then turned about and tied up at Plum Point, a short
distance upriver. The _Cairo_ drifted in later with the mortar scows and
took station the morning of April 14 to hurl 200-pound shells in a
bombardment that would last for 7 weeks. Her guns were trained so as to
protect the mortarscows from possible interference by Confederate
gunboats. Day after day, sometimes at the rate of one a minute, shells
were dropped upon the fort; the Southerners fired back, occasionally
scoring hits, but never inflicting serious damage.

    [Illustration: _The lower Mississippi River and its tributaries,
    showing the _Cairo’s_ area of operations._]

In the meantime, Foote’s wound had become worse and finally reached the
stage at which he was forced to retire. On May 9 he turned over command
of the Western Flotilla to Capt. Charles H. Davis, a Harvard student who
had followed a naval career. (He had been a member of the Office of
Detail in Washington at the start of the war and was later stationed
with the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron.) That afternoon a
Confederate steamer came within range bearing a white flag under the
pretense of exchanging two Union surgeons captured at Belmont, Mo. The
Federals presumed correctly that the move was one of reconnaissance.

The morning after Davis took command, a Confederate fleet of rams
steamed up from Fort Pillow just as Mortar Boat No. 16, guarded by the
_Cincinnati_, was being moored at Craighead Point to begin the daily
bombardment. This move by the Southerners caught the Union ironclads
unprepared, some of them without sufficient steam to hold against the
current of the stream. But their engineers reacted to the emergency,
throwing oil, and anything else flammable which was available to them,
into the fireboxes in an effort to raise steam.

    [Illustration: _Battle of Plum Point, May 10, 1862. From a sketch by
    Rear Adm. Henry Walke._
                                   Battles and Leaders of the Civil War]

The Confederate attack was opened on _Cincinnati_, farthest downstream.
Three rams, first the _General Bragg_ and then the _Sterling Price_ and
the _Sumter_, struck the ironclad, inflicting considerable damage. Other
Union vessels came to her rescue as rapidly as they could. The _Cairo_
moved from across the river and had her first chance for battle action.
As her bow guns were rapidly fired, a ball from the _Van Dorn_ struck
near the center gunport, but glanced off without doing damage. Then she
turned her attention to the _Mound City_, a sister ironclad which had
been struck by a ram and had had a hole smashed in her starboard forward
quarter, accompanying her until she grounded herself.

As the furious action ended and the Confederates ran back down under the
protection of Fort Pillow, the _Cairo_ assisted in running the _Mound
City_ onto a shoal opposite Plum Point, where she sank. The _Cincinnati_
also went down. (Both would be raised and repaired.)

The _Cairo’s_ crew at last had something to talk about. They had taken
part in what was described as the first strictly “fleet action” of the
war, but there was a question as to the glory of the role they played.
Some officers were disappointed that the vessel had not participated
more prominently.

One result of the Battle of Plum Point, which lasted little more than an
hour, was further strengthening of the ironclads. To protect against
another attack by rams, railroad iron was placed around the ends of the
vessels and other points were buttressed with cypress logs.

The bombardment of Fort Pillow continued after the action at Plum Point,
with two ironclads being assigned daily to guard the mortar boats on
duty for the day. May 25 marked the arrival of a fleet of nine rams and
two floating batteries under command of Col. Charles Ellet, a civil
engineer who had drawn attention to himself by advancing the idea of
converting steamboats into rams. At the start, he and Davis disagreed
over a plan of joint action, so Ellet, having orders to that effect,
prepared to act on his own. He sent men ashore on June 2, and they came
back with a report that the Confederates appeared to be evacuating.

    [Illustration: _Adm. Andrew H. Foote._
                                                    Library of Congress]

Next day two of the Union vessels ran down toward Fort Pillow and
sighted a Confederate gunboat, the _Jeff Thompson_, lying under the guns
of the fort, but before they could attack, cannoneers opened from above
and drove them back. Later in the day, while the _Cairo_ was helping
guard the mortar boats, the Confederate fleet appeared and exchanged a
few shots before withdrawing.

A joint attack on Fort Pillow, with troops moving in from the land side,
was planned for June 5, but the Southerners upset the schedule. The fort
had been ordered evacuated and was virtually empty on the 3d, while on
the evening of the 4th demolition teams began applying the torch. By
noon of the next day, the Confederate fleet was at Memphis, a shortage
of men for the fort having caused the evacuation.

The Federals now advanced on Memphis, arriving there the evening of the
5th. At dawn, the Confederate fleet, consisting of eight rams and
gunboats and facing such a shortage of coal that it was unable to go
farther downstream, drew up in line in front of the city to await

    [Illustration: _Battle of Memphis, June 6, 1862. The _Cairo_ is the
    fourth boat from the left. From a sketch by Rear Adm. Henry Walke._
                                   Battles and Leaders of the Civil War]

Action began at 5:30 a.m. and ended in a running fight 1½ hours later.
All of the Confederate vessels were either sunk or captured except the
_Van Dorn_ and a little storeboat, the _Paul Jones_, both of which
happened to have coal enough to flee downriver.

In the battle, the _Cairo_ was the first of the ironclads to fire,
opening with her 42-pounder starboard bow rifle. Throughout the action
she kept busy, firing, rescuing men from the water, and finally taking
part in the running fight; but her role was not one to cause her to be
singled out in the official reports.

For the next 6 days, the _Cairo_ lay with the other ironclads at
Memphis. On June 12 she was ordered to return to Fort Pillow, where she
would remain for 3 months while her crew guarded public property,
undertook patrols on each side of the river, and strengthened the boat.
From a nearby sawmill and from the Fort Pillow fortifications, lumber
and iron were obtained to build a barricade around the engines, steam
drums, and boilers.

September brought the _Cairo_ a change of command. For months,
Lieutenant Bryant had been in failing health and, as he grew steadily
worse, a medical board recommended that he be allowed extended sick
leave. On orders, he headed his vessel downstream to Helena to
rendezvous with the flotilla and there, on September 12, he turned his
command over to Lt. Comdr. Thomas O. Selfridge, Jr.

The new captain, more youthful than Bryant, was a man who had seen more
service during the war than most other officers. He had appeared briefly
in the limelight at Norfolk, Va., in the opening stages. There, as a
lieutenant on board the U.S.S. _Cumberland_, he had been interested in
stopping some of the Confederate shenanigans that led to the evacuation
and destruction by the North of the Gosport Navy Yard. Later, he was
assigned the responsibility of finding out what could be done about the
blockade running that was going on so successfully along the North
Carolina coast, especially at Hatteras. He studied the situation and
recommended sending in a fleet of tugboats, steamers, gunboats, and
launches to patrol Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds, claiming this would
clear up matters in 3 weeks. In effect, he was prescribing the end of a
system of signals between ship and shore that the South operated with
great results until the fall of Fort Fisher in January 1865.

On March 10, 1862, the day after the famous battle between the
_Merrimack_ and the _Monitor_, he was ordered to command the latter
vessel. This order was countermanded by Flag Officer L. M. Goldsborough,
who reported plans already had been made to place the ship under Lt.
Comdr. W. M. Jeffers.

    [Illustration: _Adm. David D. Porter._
                                                    Library of Congress]

Selfridge’s first assignment after assuming command of the _Cairo_ was
to guard transports taking prisoners down the Mississippi for exchange
at Vicksburg and to return with repatriated Federals. On the run back,
he got in an argument with Chief Pilot Oscar B. Jolly, one of the best
on the river, who promptly resigned. After this incident, members of the
crew began making up their own opinions of the new captain.

The responsibility for the Western Flotilla, which had been under the
Army, was assigned by Congress on October 1 to the Navy. Resulting
changes caused Captain Davis to be called to Washington as chief of the
Bureau of Navigation and to be succeeded as flotilla commander by David
Dixon Porter, foster brother of the immortal David G. Farragut, the Navy
veteran who had conducted the successful campaign against New Orleans
the preceding spring.

Shortly after returning to Helena, the _Cairo_ received orders to
accompany the ammunition steamer _Judge Torrence_ to Memphis. This was
an opportunity for which Selfridge had been waiting. The fire linings in
his vessel had deteriorated to the point at which they were dangerous,
and he had been unable so far to get replacements. He felt confident he
could find them at Memphis.

After a 2-day run up the Mississippi, the _Cairo_ tied up at Memphis,
with instructions to remain there for further orders. This gave
Selfridge a chance to make the necessary repairs, and he had them
completed by November 7.

The weeks that followed were spent by the _Cairo’s_ crew in gunnery
practice and in patrolling the river above and below Memphis in an
effort to break up the smuggling which was so evident at that point.
They did an effective job. Meanwhile, Selfridge received notice from
Porter that an active campaign on the Mississippi was about to begin.

The campaign was to be another advance on Vicksburg, this time by land
as well as by water. The Army of the Tennessee under General Grant was
already moving southward from Tennessee. These troops, according to
plan, were to advance by way of Grenada, down the corridor between the
Yazoo and Big Black Rivers, and cut the Confederates off from their base
of operations at Jackson. The Navy was expected to clear the Yazoo of
the enemy as far up as Greenwood, where the light-drafts would turn into
the Balobusha and ascend it to Grenada, and there destroy the railroad
bridges. An attempt would also be made to capture the large number of
steamers the Confederates had secreted in the twisting waterways of the

Porter, on November 22, ordered Selfridge to bring his vessel to Helena.
Three days later the _Cairo’s_ commander sent word that he had been
asked by the Army to remain at Memphis and that he thought he would be
doing right to fulfill the request. This brought a reply from Porter
that was couched in sarcasm: “I would feel better satisfied to dispose
of the vessels under my command as it seems best to me.” He said he
would send a replacement for the _Cairo_, which was needed on the
expedition he was planning.

While awaiting the replacement, Selfridge continued to strengthen the
_Cairo_. More railroad iron was added to reinforce the casemate
protecting the boilers and machinery.

His relief arrived on the morning of December 4, and he set out for the
mouth of the Yazoo immediately, arriving on the 8th. The fleet that
gathered there ready to go upstream was under the command of Capt. Henry
Walke, a Mexican War veteran, a fine artist, and a dauntless fighter.

The next 2 days were spent in recoaling. Then, on the 11th, plans for a
reconnaissance up the Yazoo were carried out. This was done by the two
tinclads, _Marmora_ and _Signal_, light-draft stern-wheelers covered
with 1¼ inches of iron that afforded protection against shells but not
against heavier projectiles.

They ran up the river some 20 miles and prepared to round to, as the
lookouts sighted several suspicious objects floating on the water. A man
on board the _Marmora_ fired a musket at one of them and touched off a
tremendous explosion that shook the boat and threw water over a wide
area. Another explosion occurred shortly afterward near the _Signal_. No
damage was caused by either. However, it was recognized that contact had
been made with some of the vaunted Confederate mines, more commonly
referred to as “torpedoes.”

Back at the mouth of the river that night, the captains of the two
tinclads told of their experience. They said the number of small scows
and stationary floats they saw at the point where they had turned around
indicated the presence of other torpedoes, but, if protected by one or
two gunboats, they believed they could safely lift the “infernal
machines” from the water and deactivate them.

    [Illustration: _Lt. Comdr. Thomas O. Selfridge._
                                                    Library of Congress]

Selfridge requested permission to use the _Cairo_ on such a venture, and
Walke consented. He also designated the gunboat _Pittsburg_ and the ram
_Queen of the West_ to go along.

    [Illustration: _The type of torpedo that sank the U.S.S. _Cairo_.
    From a sketch in the_ Official Records of the Union and Confederate

  _Wires to galvanic cell on shore_
  _Wood float_
  _5-gallon glass demijohn filled with black powder_
  _Rope to shore_

The fleet commander repeated his instructions, addressing his words
particularly to Selfridge, who would be in command. The officers were
told to avoid the channel where the mines were set. The tinclads were to
move close to shore and, by using small boats, haul the infernal
machines out and destroy them before proceeding upriver. The ram would
follow immediately behind the tinclads, and the two gunboats would bring
up the rear, shelling the banks whenever necessary. He concluded by
advising that, if there was an apparent danger in the execution of these
orders, the project was to be abandoned and they were to return until a
better means of carrying it out could be found.

At 7:30 a.m. on December 12, the expedition proceeded up the Yazoo, with
the vessels in the order designated. Here and there along the way
sharpshooters fired from trees on shore, and an occasional shell was
tossed in their direction.

Frequently on the way up, Selfridge displayed impatience. He would
peremptorily shout orders to Capt. Edwin W. Sutherland, commander of the
_Queen of the West_, moving directly ahead of the _Cairo_, to go faster.
Other officers recognized that more speed imperiled the safety of the
boats in advance, for, if they had been compelled by some unexpected
danger to stop suddenly or to back up in the narrow, tortuous stream,
they would have been inevitably run down by the ram.

Sometime after 10:30, the _Marmora_, moving 100 yards or so in advance,
came in sight of the torpedoes and stopped, partially hidden by a bend
in the river. Selfridge heard a heavy fire of musketry and supposed she
was being attacked from shore. As the little fleet closed up, he saw
that the firing was coming from the _Marmora_, then backing, and was
aimed at a block of wood floating in the river.

“Why don’t you go ahead?” shouted Selfridge. Someone on the _Marmora_
yelled back, “Here is where the torpedoes are!”

Selfridge ordered the firing stopped and a boat lowered to examine the
object. At the same time, he directed that the right shore be bombarded
and a boat sent out from his own vessel.

Men in the small boats recovered one infernal machine and debris from
the torpedoes exploded the day before. In the meantime, the bow of the
_Cairo_ had turned toward shore. Selfridge, who seemed to have little
fear of the Confederate torpedoes, backed out to proceed upstream and
then ordered the _Marmora_ to move ahead slowly. The _Cairo_ took the
lead and advanced into unreconnoitered waters. Her big wheel had made
only a dozen revolutions when there were two explosions in quick
succession, one close to her port quarter and the other under her port

Opinions varied as to how long it took the _Cairo_ to go down—8 to 15
minutes, the estimates ran. However long it was, the vessel was run in
toward shore where she sank, leaving only her chimneys above water. The
_Queen of the West_ came to the aid of the _Cairo’s_ crew, all of whom
were rescued. Nothing was saved except a few hammocks and bags which
floated away from the wreckage.

Before moving downstream, the _Queen_ knocked down the stacks to keep
the Southerners from finding the sunken ironclad. (This was an act that
would have its benefits a century later, when an enterprising group of
men, no longer taking sides between the North and South, sounded for the
_Cairo_ until they located her and then brought her to the surface to be

The _Cairo’s_ value to the Union must be estimated in terms of
disappointment. At the start, she failed to function properly. In
addition, she fired a few shells at the riverbank at Eastport, took her
share of guard duty at Fort Pillow, and played a rather inconspicuous
part in the battle at Plum Point and later that at Memphis. She added
little to the North’s offensive, and the records gave her very little
mention. From a practical standpoint, her major contribution lies in
what she took down below the waters with her when she sank in the Yazoo,
for therein was preserved for future generations first-hand information
on the type of fighting boat that fought along the inland rivers in the
Civil War and the sort of life lived by the crewmen on board.

                                                              _V. C. J._

                 _Raising the _Cairo_ and Her Contents_

    [Illustration: 2]

    [Illustration: _The _Cairo’s_ bow and casemate break the surface of
    the Yazoo for the first time in more than a century._
                                               Courtesy, Vicksburg Post]

For almost 100 years the _Cairo_ lay quietly beneath the swift, muddy
waters of the Yazoo River. Some of this mud, plus branches and even
whole trees, clung to and eventually covered the sunken vessel until
only the pilothouse felt the passing water. The survivors of the
disaster died, and local residents forgot the location. They remembered
the event, however, and in time began to connect it in their minds with
the wreckage of a Confederate raft further upstream.

This was the situation in 1956 when Edwin C. Bearss set in motion the
chain of events that rescued the _Cairo_ and her contents for history. A
thorough student of the Civil War, Bearss was then park historian at
Vicksburg National Military Park, Miss. Because of his detailed
knowledge of the area and its history, visitors from many parts of the
country sought his aid and guidance in their explorations of
little-known Civil War sites and their hunts for surviving artifacts. On
one such artifact-hunting expedition north of Vicksburg, some local
farmers told Bearss that if he were interested and would come back when
the water in the Yazoo River was low, he could see, at the foot of
Snyder’s Bluff, the remains of the _Cairo_, the first warship in history
to be sunk by an electrically detonated “torpedo.” The wreckage they
were talking about was not really the _Cairo_, and Bearss knew it. His
study of contemporary documents and maps had told him that the ironclad,
if she still existed, must be several miles downstream from the bluff.

But Bearss’ interest had been kindled, and he decided to take action.
With Warren Grabau, a fellow Civil War buff, and Don Jacks, a Park
Service maintenance man who had been born in the area and knew the river
and all its moods, he set to work. Armed with their combined knowledge
and a small pocket compass, they set off in a small boat one cold
November morning in 1956 to find the lost ironclad and prove its
identity once and for all. After a number of triangulated probes, their
eyes carefully watching the compass needle to catch any deflection when
it passed over the mass of iron below, the men pinpointed the wreck. It
was just where their study of the historical evidence had convinced them
it would be—30 feet from the Yazoo’s east bank about 3 miles below
Snyder’s Bluff, near the site of Benson Blake’s lower plantation.

    [Illustration: _The lower Yazoo and the site of the _Cairo’s_

In their own minds the trio of explorers knew they had found the
_Cairo_. It was in the right place, and its construction and dimensions
matched those in the historical specifications. Still they wanted to be
absolutely sure. They worried that another steamer or a barge, sunk here
long ago and since forgotten, might have coincidentally met all the same
criteria as those of the Civil War gunboat. A long shot, of course, but
real scholars must be absolutely sure before reaching any conclusion.
They wanted more tests, more data.

    [Illustration: _Diagram showing position of _Cairo_ in Yazoo

For 3 years they waited to confirm their conclusions about the
underwater wreckage. Then they got the break they needed. They managed
to persuade two scuba divers (Ken Parks and James Hart) from Jackson,
Miss., that diving for the old wreck would be fun. In October 1959,
Bearss, Jacks, and the divers headed up the Yazoo once more, carrying
all the necessary equipment and a host of questions Bearss hoped the
underwater men could answer. Finding the answers wasn’t easy. The river
was so muddy that the divers had to work blind, and the swift current
made the operation even trickier. Still, they found that the pilothouse
protruded above the mud. They tried to get inside the vessel through the
house, but mud completely filled the interior. In the end they had to be
satisfied with the port covers from the pilothouse and a few planks for
testing. But Bearss and the others now knew for certain that the wreck
was the _Cairo_. The armored port covers had wiped away all doubt.

    [Illustration: _A 32-pounder naval gun and carriage are pulled from
    the mud, October 1963._
                                            Courtesy, William R. Wilson]

Still they were unsatisfied. The port covers made them want more.
Visions of raising the whole boat danced enticingly before them. It
could be done. It was worth a try. First they needed public support,
then money. A spectacular find, the resurrection of a significant
fragment, might do it. Local people succumbed to their persuasion. They
gave or lent equipment. A lumber company donated the services of a tug
and a derrick. The skilled divers spent 10 days sluicing the silt out of
the pilothouse with jets from a firehose. Then, working in total
blackness, they passed 1-inch cables through four of the ports. The tug
pulled the derrick into position, workmen attached the cables, and in a
few moments the pilothouse broke water. A significant portion of the
historic vessel felt the free air for the first time in almost a
century. Buffs and workmen cheered in excited delight. But there was
more. After dark, an 8-inch naval gun on its wooden carriage joined the
pilothouse on the bank. Both were in excellent condition, almost
perfectly preserved. They caught the popular imagination just as the
planners hoped. Interest in the project spread far and wide. But the
hoped-for money failed to appear.

A year passed. Public interest waned without the stimuli of exciting new
discoveries. Then Gov. Ross Barnett of Mississippi came to the project’s
aid. Long interested in history, the Governor persuaded several State
agencies to provide funds. Historian Bearss appeared on a nationwide
television quiz program and won the $10,000 jackpot for his knowledge of
the Civil War. This money, too, went into the project. In the autumn of
1962, Bearss, Jacks, Vicksburg National Military Park historian Albert
Banton, and scuba divers Parks and Hart began a 30-day survey to
determine the condition of the Cairo’s structural timbers. The New
England Naval and Maritime Museum joined them in the effort. Firehoses
cleared the silt from the spardeck, and the divers forced their way
inside the casemate to get at the beams. Every one they tested was

Encouraged by this survey, the Mississippi Agricultural and Industrial
Board superintended a drive in the autumn of 1963 to raise the ship
intact. A mighty gravel dredge sucked the mud and debris away from the
hull. Divers, both U.S. and professional, cleared the silt from the
gundeck, and workmen pulled all the remaining cannon and carriages to
the surface, along with hundreds of other historical objects of all
kinds. The treasure hoard of Civil War artifacts began to accumulate.

Impressed by the importance of the recoveries and by the favorable
publicity attached to them, the Mississippi Legislature in the spring of
1964 appropriated $50,000 to continue the operations. A group of
interested Vicksburgers contacted a New Orleans construction firm which
agreed to raise the _Cairo_ on a “no raise, no pay” contract. An
experienced diver undertook the diving on the same basis. And the Warren
County (Miss.) Board of Supervisors agreed to underwrite the salvage. At
long last everything had meshed.

The great adventure began on August 3, 1964. A dredge cleared away the
silt that had accumulated since March, and a dragline dug a hole in the
river bottom just ahead of the _Cairo’s_ bow. Logs, some as much as 5
feet in diameter, had to be removed. Then the divers slowly see-sawed
huge cables (2½ and 3 inches in diameter) under the hull. By October 17
seven of these cables were in position, and the next day the raising
operation commenced. Four derricks with a total lifting capacity of
1,000 tons pitted their strength against the dead weight of the big
ironclad. They hauled her out of the hole into which she had settled,
but even their combined power could not lift her out of the water. The
thick iron armor, the waterlogged timbers, and the mud-filled holds were
too much for them. They moved the vessel, still submerged, 70 feet
upstream and set her down on a shoal.

New strategy was needed. A giant barge (235 × 40 feet) was towed to the
scene and sunk in the hole the _Cairo_ had formerly occupied. On October
29 the derricks tugged on the old vessel once more. If they could get
her on top of the sunken barge, the engineers felt they could raise both
together without difficulty. But Nature refused to cooperate. Water in
the Yazoo dropped to a low level, much lower than optimum for the
effort. There was no time to wait for rains and a rise in the water
level. They had to work now or abandon the project. Cables strained and
the casemate broke water. Just 6 inches more and the _Cairo_ would slip
easily onto the barge. Again the cables strained, and the hulk moved,
but, without the buoyancy of the water to help support most of the
vessel, the weight on the cables increased drastically. With a sickening
noise, two of them cut deeply into the wooden hull. All hope of raising
the ship intact was gone.

Now it was a question of saving as much of the historic vessel as
possible—in any way possible. The professionals decided to cut the
_Cairo_ into three sections: bow, midship, and stern. Finally, on
December 12, 1964, the derrick raised the last section and lowered it
gently to the deck of the barge. It was 102 years to the day since the
gunboat had sunk.

_Reminders of the Past_

Even in fragments, the _Cairo_ proved a treasure. Experts from the
Smithsonian Institution and the National Park Service found it a gold
mine of information. It was, in fact, a century-old time capsule loaded
with the everyday objects of naval life, some of them previously
completely unknown. Studied _in situ_, they told of practices and
customs no one had even dreamed about before. Even the vessel itself
offered new information, for students quickly discovered that it had not
been built according to the original specifications in some instances
and that assumptions based on incomplete data were totally wrong. Museum
models and drawings across the country had to be reworked, old concepts
changed, new features added.

Many phases of life and organization on board a naval vessel developed
according to tradition. No one ever wrote them down, and knowledge of
them died with the veterans. In this field, the _Cairo_ helped bring the
period back to life in a truly vivid manner.

Take the matter of food and drink, for instance. Evidence from the
_Cairo_ shows that the sailors ate in messes of about 15 men, and each
mess had a special chest to hold its gear: tin plates, cups, spoons,
glass condiment bottles, scrub brushes, a washtub, and an earthenware
jug of molasses. Every man took care of his own utensils, and he
scratched his name or initials on each piece. Those who could not write
at least could make an identifying mark. The glass condiment bottles
bore embossed labels, “U S NAVY” on one side and “PEPPER” or “MUSTARD”
on the other. No one had ever seen such bottles before, but there were
more than 300 on board, some still holding their original contents.

    [Illustration: _The _Cairo’s_ bow and stern sections being
    reassembled at Pascagoula, Miss._
                             Courtesy, Ingalls Shipbuilding Corporation]

The officers dined in a separate mess, and they had finer fare. The
dishes were ironstone: the knives, forks, and spoons were made by Rogers
and Brothers and the Hartford Manufacturing Company. Much of the
ironstone had been broken, either in the mine explosion or in salvage,
but a representative collection survived intact. These show that much of
it had been made in England by J. Wedgwood and sold to the Government by
J. J. Brown, Importer, New Albany, Ind. Cooks prepared the food for
officers and men in big copper and iron pots on an iron cooking range
ironically named “Southern Belle” but manufactured by S. A. Burton and
Company of Cincinnati, Ohio; and the discovery of a rolling pin suggests
that the fare sometimes included biscuits and pastry. The commissary
storeroom yielded hundreds of barrels with bones inside—all that
remained of the salt beef and pork that formed a major part of all naval
diets during that period. Nearby stood the remnants of a butcher block,
a two-handed meat cleaver, and several scales. Here, presumably, the
boat’s butcher stood as he cut and issued the meat for the messes.

Officers overcame the monotony of their diet with the help of spirits as
well as condiments. From their section came bottles for whiskey, rum,
still wines, and champagne, some of them unopened.

Other bottles offered evidence on medical care, for many contained the
remains of their original contents. These included potassium chlorate (a
drug prescribed for many complaints of the period), blue mass for
syphilis, quinine, rhubarb, ammonia, sulphur, zinc chloride (used as an
antiseptic and astringent), and ferric chloride, often prescribed as an
iron tonic. Most of these bottles required professional analysis for
identification, but others are so familiar that a smell was enough to
know that they held iodine, castor oil, camphor, turpentine, or linseed

Only a few surgical items remained. Some may have been carried off the
sinking vessel and others may have been lost in salvage. Among those
that remained were silver ear syringes, buckles for tourniquets, a metal
bedpan, and rubberbands for suturing arteries. These bands still
retained their elasticity after 100 years of submersion!

Students of ordnance and weapons had a field day with the _Cairo’s_
contents. Apparently the vessel carried no cutlasses, for none was
found. Instead there were Army foot artillery swords of the “Roman”
model of 1832 with their handsome cast-brass hilts reflecting the
cultural interest in classical objects that had been so popular when
they were adopted. Perhaps the use of Army swords instead of Navy
patterns reflected the conflict over control of the river gunboats, or
perhaps it meant that weapons were scarce just then and any usable type
was welcome. The latter is the more probable explanation, for the
muskets found on board were smoothbore model 1842’s instead of the
rifled models of 1855 and 1861.

    [Illustration: _The _Cairo’s_ “Southern Belle” cooking range is
    brought ashore. In the background are the ironclad’s boilers._
                                               Courtesy, Vicksburg Post]

    [Illustration: _The _Cairo’s_ bell._
                                               Courtesy, Vicksburg Post]

But the discoveries related to the cannon told much, much more. All the
guns had been ready for action when the ironclad went down. They came up
the same way—fully loaded, sights in place, and percussion locks mounted
for firing. Here military historians noted the first significant new
information. Each cannon had a white sighting line painted down the top
of its barrel. No surviving ordnance manual or document mentions this
practice. Yet it was an obviously sensible thing to do. It gave the
gunner a quick visual line that he could pick up easily in the dark
casemate. It would have been just as helpful in the enclosed gundecks of
traditional warships, so now scholars wonder how long it had been done.
All guns boasted two sets of sights: the new adjustable and precise
brass patterns and the older strap-on tubes for quick point-blank
firing. Further discoveries showed that the Civil War ordnance men had
anticipated at least one modern efficiency technique. They had
color-coded the wooden boxes that held the artillery projectiles—red for
explosive shells, white for solid shot—so that the proper round could be
identified quickly and easily.

For the non-specialist, however, the most fascinating items were those
that told about the sailors’ everyday lives. Such things as the packets
called “housewives” that held their needles, thread, and scissors;
hard-rubber combs marked “U.S. NAVY” on one side and “IR GOODYEAR 1851”
on the other; toothbrushes very much like modern types; and straight
razors made by the same firm of Wade & Butcher who still produces them
for barbers today. And there were yet other personal items—Captain
Selfridge’s saddle that he used whenever he could get ashore and indulge
his fondness for riding, officers’ buttons of gilt brass, enlisted men’s
peajacket buttons of hard rubber decorated with an anchor and “U.S.N.”
made by the Novelty Rubber Company, both Army and Navy regulation
uniform brass buttons, and even bone buttons for shirts and underwear.
Insignia from such varied branches of service as artillery, cavalry, and
infantry showed that some of the _Cairo’s_ complement had worn their old
uniforms on board as they mixed with the Navy personnel.
Government-issue pocketknives with square-ended blades proved that these
had come into use well before scholars thought. There was a profusion of
leather objects (boots, shoes, belts, cartridge-boxes, cap-pouches, book
covers, and powder buckets), many still in excellent condition. The list
of such valuable discoveries is almost endless, but perhaps the most
poignant are the photographs of loved ones that survived their watery
burial—and the pencils the men had used to write home to them. Some of
the pencils were marked “A. W. FABER NO. 2,” just like those that modern
sailors and soldiers sometimes still use for the same purpose.

Almost anyone who looks at these historic objects can find something
that makes this ancient ship and its long-dead crew alive and meaningful
to him. Even if he is not a student or specialist of the Civil War, the
familiar forms and objects, even the common brand names, bring the
period vividly to life. They form a national treasure of the greatest
importance. The National Park Service, recognizing this, has entered
into an agreement with Warren County and the State of Mississippi to
care for and preserve them until the _Cairo_ can be restored and
exhibited. A selection of the specimens is now on display at Vicksburg
National Military Park for all who want to see and experience this
significant link with a historic era.

                                                              _H. L. P._

    [Illustration: _The _Cairo_ contained a wealth of fascinating
    artifacts. Among them was this photograph of an unidentified woman
    and child, probably the wife and daughter of one of the ironclad’s
                                            Courtesy, William R. Wilson]

    [Illustration: _Other objects recovered from the sunken gunboat were
    front and rear sights for a 30-pounder Parrott rifle; comb, watch,
    pocket-knife, dish, spoon, and cup, each marked with the owner’s
    name or initials; a brace of Colt .44 Army pistols; and an as yet
    unidentified item (right) which stands 12 inches high, is tin-plated
    and hand-soldered, and has a non-removable top. Any guesses as to
    what it is?_
                                            Courtesy, William R. Wilson]

    [Illustration: _A stand of grape shot and a charge of canister, and
    a firing device for a 42-pounder Army rifle._
                                            Courtesy, William R. Wilson]

    [Illustration: _Park Service historian Albert Banton, Jr., cleans up
    some of the projectiles removed from the _Cairo’s_ shell room._
                                            Courtesy, William R. Wilson]

    [Illustration: _Leg and wrist irons, and mess gear possibly used by
    one of the _Cairo’s_ officers, were remarkably preserved despite
    being underwater for more than a century._
                                            Courtesy, William R. Wilson]

    [Illustration: _So, too, were boots, shoes, and other leather
    objects, which became pliable again after treatment with a special
                                            Courtesy, William R. Wilson]

    [Illustration: DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR · March 3, 1849]

_As the Nation’s principal conservation agency, the Department of the
Interior has basic responsibilities for water, fish, wildlife, mineral,
land, park, and recreational resources. Indian and Territorial affairs
are other major concerns of America’s “Department of Natural Resources.”
The Department works to assure the wisest choice in managing all our
resources so each will make its full contribution to a better United
States—now and in the future._

                   _U.S. Department of the Interior_
                        _National Park Service_

          ★ U. S. GOVERNMENT PRINTING OFFICE: 1974 O - 552-532

    [Illustration: Photograph of gunboat]

    [Illustration: Wraparound cover image]

                          Transcriber’s Notes

—Silently corrected a few typos.

—Retained publication information from the printed edition: this eBook
  is public-domain in the country of publication.

—In the text versions only, text in italics is delimited by

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