Vicksburg National Military Park

U.S.S. Cairo

Photo of the USS Cairo on display
The USS Cairo on display at Vicksburg National Military Park
Ken Lund

Quick Facts

Location:
Vicksburg, MS
Significance:
The U.S.S.Cairo is one of only three Civil War-era gunboats that still exist
Designation:
National Park, National Register of Historic Places, National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark

The USS Cairo was the first of 7 City Class ironclads commissioned by the United States War Department in 1862. It was constructed by James Eads and Company of Mound City, Illinois and initially assigned to the Union Army's Western Gunboat Flotilla.

The Cairo took part in the occupations of Clarksville and Nashville Tennessee in February 1862, and in the reduction of Fort Pillow from April to June. On the 6th of June, the Cairo, along with eight other Union warships, engaged a similar-size flotilla of Confederate gunboats that were defending the city of Memphis, Tennessee. Five of the opposing gunboats were sunk or run ashore in this action and two seriously damaged. Union forces occupied Memphis that night.

The Cairo spent the summer and fall of 1862 patrolling the Mississippi River but then, on November 21st, the vessel was assigned to an expedition ascending the Yazoo River. On December 12, 1862, while clearing mines from the river near Haines Bluff, Mississippi, the Cairo struck an underwater mine detonated from shore. It sank in only twelve minutes but with no loss of life. In this way, the Cairo became the first armored warship in history sunk by an electrically-detonated mine.

The wreck of the Cairo was rediscovered in the late 1950s by a team of local Civil War enthusiasts led by Vicksburg National Military Park Historian Edwin C. Bearss. Salvage operations, funded by local and state governmental agencies, commenced in 1960 and by 1965, the remains of the Cairo were resting in Pascagoula, Mississippi.

The National Park Service accepted title to the Cairo in 1972 and oversaw its transport to Vicksburg National Military Park in 1977. The Cairo is now the centerpiece of the USS Cairo Museum located next to Vicksburg National Cemetery.