Life Aboard the USS Cairo
Table of Contents
Museum Collections, Similar Items and other Materials Used
National Educational Standards
Student Learning Objectives
Background and Historical Context
Teacher Tips
Lesson Implementation Procedures
Evaluation/Assessment for Measurable Results
Extension and Enrichment Activities
Site Visit

A. Title: Life Aboard the USS Cairo
  • Developers:
    Katie Nettles, 5th Grade Teacher, Madison Crossing Elementary, Gluckstadt, MS Leah Ellis, 9th Grade English Teacher, Vicksburg High School, Vicksburg, MS
    Grade Level:
    Grades 4-6 (can be adjusted to fit other levels)
  • Number of Sessions in the Lesson Unit Plan: Five 50-60 minutes lessons
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B. Overview of this Collection-Based Lesson Unit Plan
  • Park Name: Vicksburg National Military Park
  • Description:
    Through object-based inquiry, students will be able to explore what life was like as a sailor aboard the USS Cairo during the American Civil War, and be able to compare this with life today. 
  • Essential Question:
    • What was life like for a sailor aboard the doomed ironclad, the USS Cairo, and how does it compare with life today?
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C. Museum Collections, Similar Items and other Materials Used in this Lesson Unit Plan
MUSEUM OBJECT [photos of objects in the Carl Sandburg Home NHS museum collections] SIMILAR OBJECTS [local items similar to museum objects] & OTHER MATERIALS Length of time

Lesson One


Similar items [similar to objects in the Park museum collection]

  • Various brands, types, and styles of toothbrushes (can be brought by students-still in package)
  • Journals
  • Chart paper
  • Legal paper for toothbrush charts (pre-drawn with two columns)

Art-making materials
Art-making materials including varieties of paper, paints, markers, pens, pencils,  crayons, modeling clay, plaster of Paris, newspapers, and some cardboard boxes

Other materials

Forms and Charts:

45 minutes

Lesson Two


Bar of Soap

  • Legal paper for charts (pre-drawn with three columns)
  • Various bars of new, unopened soap (one per group)
  • Bars of unscented, lye soap (one per group)
  • Paper towels, bowls, and water


45 minutes

Lesson Three


Mess Place Setting

  • Journals
  • Chart paper
  • Place setting materials (plate, knife, fork, spoon, cup, etc.)


45 minutes

Lesson Four


  • Dominos
  • Chart paper
  • Index cards/cardstock
  • Markers/Crayons


45 minutes

Lesson Five


USS Cairo
Muster Roll

  • Journals
  • Paper for class roll
  • Modern day objects that have been discussed during Cairo lesson to be placed in time capsule.


45 minutes
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D. National Educational Standards
Era 5- Civil War and Reconstruction (1850-1877)
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E. Student Learning Objectives
    • Critically analyze specific objects in the Vicksburg National Military Park, the USS Cairo museum collections.
    • Demonstrate an understanding of the life of a sailor aboard the USS Cairo.
    • Compare and contrast life aboard the Cairo with life today.
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F. Background and Historical Context

The USS Cairo was one of seven ironclads designed by Samuel M. Pook and built by James B. Eads to aid the Union objective of regaining control of the Lower Mississippi from the Confederacy.  These seven gunboats were built between August 1861 and January 1862, and they became known as “Pook Turtles” due to the fact that they resembled mud turtles.  The average cost of each ironclad was approximately $101,808 which was financed by James Eads, who was later reimbursed by the U.S. government.

Each of the seven boats was named for cities or towns along the Ohio and Upper Mississippi Rivers:  Carondelet, Louisville, Pittsburg, St. Louis, Cairo, Cincinnati, and Mound City.  These seven impressive vessels were completed in January of 1862 and lined up along the river at Cairo, Illinois.  These gunboats would come to play an integral role in the Western theater of operations during the American Civil War.  These seven “sisters” were identical except for their identifying chimney bands and their fates. The Cairocould be distinguished from the other seven by the gray bands around her chimneys.

Many of the advancements made on the Civil War ironclads can still be found in today’s modern navy.  Many were outfitted with armor plating, internal combustion engines, rifled guns, and revolving turrets, much of which can still be found on virtually every fighting vessel on the seas.   These revolutionary gunboats ushered in the new age of iron and live on in the warships of today.

The USS Cairo was commissioned on January 16, 1862, and took four months to build, with a cost of $101,000.  The Cairo, as well as her sisters, measured a length of 175’ 0”, a width of 51’ 2”, and a draft of 6’ 0”, meaning she could float in as little as six feet of water.  She weighed 512 tons or 888 tons when fully loaded. Cairo could reach a top speed of six knots. 

During her short-lived naval career, the USS Cairo had three different commanders, the third of whom was Thomas O. Selfridge, Jr. from Charlestown, Massachusetts, and he would become her most remembered.  Selfridge was the son of a distinguished naval officer and was destined to have a career in the Navy.  In 1854, Selfridge graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis at the head of his class, and he was promptly promoted to lieutenant.    He then served aboard the USS Cumberland which famously clashed with the CSS Virginia in March of 1862.  He then went on to command the Monitor and the Alligator for brief periods of time.  But his most infamous command would come in August of 1862 when he was assigned to the USS Cairo.

During the first three months under the command of Selfridge, the Cairo spent most of her time patrolling the Mississippi River.  In November of 1862, she was dispatched on an expedition that was being formed to attack Vicksburg, the Gibraltar of the South, but she would never make it to Vicksburg.

It was during the month of December 1862, while on a mission to find and destroy Confederate torpedoes, that the USS Cairo met her fate.  She made history by becoming the first Union vessel  to be sunk by torpedoes, or what we now know as mines.  The Cairo was hit by two of these torpedoes and sank beneath the Yazoo River in a matter of just twelve minutes.  The speed with which she sank gave the sailors aboard no time to gather any personal belongings, thus creating a time capsule that waited patiently at the bottom of the river for more than 100 years.

The sailors aboard the Cairo had an extremely regimented daily routine that began at 0530, or 5:30 a.m., when the men were awakened and told to “turn to.”  First, they would roll out of their hammocks, get dressed, then roll and store the hammocks.  They would often place their hammocks around the pilot house to provide added protection.  They would then carry out the morning ritual of scrubbing, swabbing, and holystoning the decks. 

After the decks were thoroughly cleaned, the men were given an opportunity to clean and tidy themselves to get ready for inspection. Inspection was a daily check for bodily cleanliness that no crewman wished to fail due the harsh penalty.  If a crewmember was found to be unclean, on the night of his offense, the crew would give him a sand bath using buckets of sand and scrub brushes.  This would remove all the top layer of skin and was extremely painful.  As you can imagine, after undergoing this type of punishment, the crewman would take extra precautions in his daily hygiene routine.

After inspection each day, the men were then served breakfast.  This was a sparse meal that consisted only of a hard biscuit, or hardtack, and coffee.  One sailor described this coffee as nothing more than hot, colored water.  Apparently most of the meals aboard were very bland, as evidenced by the numerous mustard and pepper condiment bottles found aboard the Cairo.  The meals usually consisted of salted beef or pork with beans and sometimes fresh meat.  The crew would occasionally catch fish to supplement their meals.  Although the chef aboard the Cairo was French, he was apparently not a gourmet chef.

With their morning meal complete, the sailors spent a major part of the day drilling on the guns aboard the Cairo.  Each gun required five to six men and each man had his own task to perform.  Each task must be performed flawlessly; so much time was taken to drill for speed as well as safety.  Firing a gun could be as dangerous for the person firing as it was for the person being fired upon because an incorrectly fired gun could explode, injuring or killing those around it.  Commander Selfridge was so adamant about the importance of drilling, that he would often wake the crew at odd hours of the night to have gun drills so that they would be prepared if they were suddenly fired upon. Although the crew was very disciplined and well-trained, this could not save their boat from her fate.

When the USS Cairo was discovered at the bottom of the Yazoo River, its contents were so amazingly well-preserved, that they give us a very accurate glimpse into the daily life of a sailor aboard this Civil War era ironclad.  We are given a picture that is almost frozen in time, thus enabling us to draw an accurate comparison with our lives today.
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G. Vocabulary

Hammock- a bed of canvas swung from the top of the boat
Hurricane Deck- top deck
Swabbing-  to mop
Holystoning- when a huge sandstone rock is pulled across the deck to make the deck smooth
Penalty-a punishment
Lye- a substance used in cleaning and making soap
Hardtack – a hard biscuit or bread that is made from flour and water
Facetiously-joking especially at an inappropriate time
Condiment- a seasoning or relish, as pepper, mustard, sauces, etc.
Supplement-something added, especially to make up for a lack

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H. Teacher Tips
  • Download, make copies, and laminate color prints of museum objects used.
  • Make overheads, bulletin boards, or posters to assist in instruction.
  • Display vocabulary around the room and discuss daily.
  • Find and purchase CD of music from the time period to play in the background.
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I. Lesson Implementation Procedures
Lesson One: Get Up and Turn To

1. Warm-Up—Journaling activity (suggested time 10-15 minutes)
  • Ask students to take a few minutes and describe their morning routine, i.e. wake-up, take bath, brush teeth, etc…

2. Informative Session (suggested time 20-25 minutes)
  • Read aloud the following: 

“Daily routine for the crew began at the early hour of 0530, at which time the men would be awakened and told to “turn to.”  They would roll out of their hammocks, dress, roll and store their hammocks and report to the top deck or hurricane deck where they would store their hammocks and perform the morning ritual of scrubbing, swabbing, and holystoning the decks.  Following this part of the morning’s routine, the men would be given a brief time to clean and tidy themselves and get ready for inspection, which took place every morning to check for general bodily cleanliness.  During one of these inspections, if a man was found to be unclean, the penalty was very heavy; on the night of his offense, his fellow crewmen would give him a sand bath using buckets of sand and scrub brushes.  All the top layers of the crewman’s skin would be scrubbed off.  After undergoing such harsh treatment, the crewman would always be very sure to pass each morning’s inspection by taking extra precautions to be clean.”

  • Discuss the paragraph and create a Venn diagram comparing the morning routine of the students and the soldiers.

3. Observation Activity (suggested time 15-20 minutes)

  • Provide various examples of modern toothbrushes, have students write a description of one of the examples and draw a picture on the first column of the paper.
  • Have students discuss what they believe a toothbrush on board the USS Cairo would have been like.  Display these questions:
  • Do you think the sailors aboard the USS Cairo would have had toothbrushes?
  • If so, what do you think they were made of?
  • How do you think they were shaped?
  • Do you think they might have looked like the toothbrushes we just observed?
  • Display the picture of Cairo toothbrushes (VICK C 351).  Tell students that these were found on the Cairo and were used by the crewmen.
  • Have students write a description of one of the toothbrushes and draw a picture on the second column of the paper.
  • Display the museum descriptions of each toothbrush so that the students can compare their own descriptions.
  • Create a bulletin board to display the museum photographs and the students’ drawings.

Lesson Two: Lather Up!

1.  Warm-Up—Journaling Activity (suggested time 10-15 minutes)

  • Break students into small groups of four or five and give each group a different bar of soap.
  • Students should list all ingredients, describe using their five senses, and draw a picture on first column of teacher made chart.

2. Informative Session (suggested time 20-25 minutes)
  • Teacher read aloud on how soap was made during the Civil War Era (copy onto chart paper or board.
    (Teacher needs to find a reference from the internet or library that describes the making of lye soap.)
  • Display museum picture of soap found on the Cairo (VICK C 1417), have students describe and draw a picture in the middle column of their chart.

3.  Observation Activity (suggested time 20-25 minutes)
  • The students should observe a bar of lye soap, list all ingredients from the package, describe using the five senses, and draw a picture on the last column of their chart.
  • The teacher should precut each bar of soap (modern and lye) into small pieces so that each student has one piece of regular soap and one piece of lye soap.
  • Place students back into warm-up groups.  Each group should also have paper towels and a small bowl of water at their table.
  • Students will then lather each specimen of soap and compare their properties, i.e. amount of lather, size of bubbles, residue left behind, fragrance, ability to successfully remove dirt, etc...
  • Each group will record their findings on a diagram (group’s choice) and choose a representative to present their findings to the class.
  • The teacher will create a bulletin board display for the group findings.

Lesson Three: What’s For Dinner?

1.  Warm-up—Journaling Activity (suggested time 10-15 minutes)
  • Students should take a few minutes and recall their supper last night.  Students should then describe the food that they ate, cooking devices that were used in food preparation, condiments or spices, and plates and utensils used.

2.  Informational Session (suggested time 20-25 minutes)

“Following inspection, the men’s breakfast was served.  This meal consisted of a hard biscuit (hardtack) and coffee.  One sailor made the comment that the coffee was actually nothing more than hot, colored water facetiously called coffee.  Meals aboard the gunboat were very bland, as evidenced by the number of condiment bottles (mustard and pepper bottles) found aboard the Cairo.  These meals consisted mainly of salted beef or pork with beans and occasional fresh meat.  Sometimes the crew would catch fish to supplement these meals.  Although the cook on board Cairo was French, he was by no means a gourmet chef.”

  • Teacher will display some modern-day examples of some of the items in the images from the USS Cairo.
  • Discuss the paragraph and images then create a chart comparing meal times for the students and for the sailors.

3. Observation Activity (suggested time 20-25 minutes)
  • Teacher will demonstrate how to create a proper place setting that the students will be required to recreate.
  • The teacher will display a labeled poster that depicts the proper place setting.
  • The student will write a description of the place setting and draw a diagram.
  • Teacher will create a bulletin to display the students’ diagrams.

Lesson Four: Dominos Anyone?

1.  Warm-up-Discussion Activity (suggested time 10-15 minutes)

  • The teacher will display picture of dominos found on the USS Cairo (Vicksburg National Military Park VICK C 428).
  • Discuss reasons why the crew would play dominos, and write the reasons on chart paper.(entertainment, get war off their mind, homesick, no TV, video games, etc…)

2.  Informative Session (suggested time 20-25 minutes)
  • Teacher reads aloud, an excerpt from the USS Cairo annals;

“On the morning of November 17, Third Assistant Engineer George Aiken faced a long, hot shift, watching gauges in the engine room.  His captain, Thomas O. Selfridge, wanted to run engine tests and needed a “working power of steam at noon.”  Aiken saw that the fires were well-fueled, then he opened the dampers and steam began to build.  The engineer was officially on-duty, but he grew restless.  Sure that everything was in order, he decided to slip away and challenge another sailor to a game of dominos.

“In the deserted room, steam pressure increased.  As George Aiken played dominos, the temperature in the belly of the ship reached a new high.”

*Stop reading at this point and have students predict what they think will happen next.

“Andrew Lusk was just a fireman aboard the Cairo.  He was officially off-duty that morning and simply passing when he noticed an unusual amount of heat in the boiler room.  When he checked the steam gauge, he saw the needle passing 205 pounds of pressure!  He knew if something wasn’t done right away the mounting steam pressure would cause an explosion-which could spell disaster within the Cairo’s ironclad wall.

“Lusk couldn’t locate Aiken, so he ran up on deck and found another engineer.  That officer immediately made adjustments and lowered the steam pressure.  Once the situation was under control, and a level of safety restored, the search went out for George Aiken.  He was found intent over his dominos, unaware of the tragedy just averted.  The game came to an abrupt end when officers burst in and dragged Aiken forward to face his furious captain.

*Stop reading at this point and ask the students to predict what will happen to Aiken.

“No one knows if George Aiken won or lost at dominos that day.  He did lose his job-Selfridge immediately suspended him from duty.  Andrew Lusk, was cited for his quick actions, and was eventually promoted-to Third Assistant Engineer.”

  • The teacher displays a poster with the rules for dominos and discuss.
  • The teacher will demonstrate how to play dominos. (using actual dominos or a set of transparent dominos on the overhead)

3.  Observation Activity (suggested time 20-25 minutes)
  • The students will observe full set of dominos and in groups, they will create their own set using index cards or cardstock and markers.
  • Each group should contain 4 people and each person will be assigned 7 dominos to make.
  • Once the dominos are complete, the group should play a game following the rules discussed in class.

Lesson Five: Frozen in Time

1.  Warm-up—Journaling Activity (suggested time 10-15 minutes)
  • The students will write at least a paragraph reflecting on what they have learned during this lesson.

2.  Activity- Creating a Time Capsule- (suggested time 30-35 minutes)
    • Display the image of the muster roll from the USS Cairo (Vicksburg National Military Park VICK C 2164) and discuss using museum description
    • The students and the teacher will create a muster “class” roll to place in the time capsule.  List the following information for each student on a piece of paper: name, date, where they currently attend school, what grade, where they were born, age, eye color, hair color, female/male, and height.
    • Place students into small groups of 4 or 5.  Allow each group to select an object that the teacher has provided (comb, toothbrush, soap, fork, cup, plate, and a spoon).  The students will then write a short statement explaining what their particular object is used for today- “modern times.”
    • The class will place all objects, statements written, and muster “class” roll in the time capsule, and then bury time capsule. 
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J. Evaluation/Assessment for Measurable Results
  • Observation sheets
  • Reflections
  • Participation
  • Vocabulary/comprehension test (teacher made)
  • Group place setting replication
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K. Extension and Enrichment Activities
  • Activity 1: Discuss how to read/tell military time.
  • Activity 2:  Research ethnic backgrounds of USS Cairo sailors, plan activities to correspond. (ethnic backgrounds can be found in the USS Cairo handouts available at the Vicksburg National Military Park)
  • Activity 3: Pretend to be a sailor aboard the USS Cairo and write a letter to someone at home about life aboard, feelings about the war and being away from home.
  • Activity 4:  Prepare and eat a meal from the time period.

Hardtack Recipe

  • Cookie sheet
  • 3 cups flour
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil


    • Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
    • Grease the cookie sheet with butter, margarine, or vegetable oil.
    • Mix the flour, water, salt, and vegetable oil into stiff dough.
    • Spread the dough out flat on the greased cookie sheet.
    • Bake for 30 minutes.
    • Remove from the oven and cut the dough into 3-inch squares.  Use a fork to prick holes in the dough.
    • Bake for another 30 minutes.
    • Let the hardtack cook completely before eating.

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L. Resources
  • Vicksburg National Military Park Museum Collection
  • U.S.S. Cairo Gunboat and Museum , brochure published by Eastern National in 2006, co-written by Robbie Smith and Elizabeth Joyner
  • The USS Cairo Vicksburg National Military Park-teacher handouts (available upon request)
  • The USS Cairo:  History and Artifacts of a Civil War Gunboat  Author Elizabeth Hoxie Joyner, McFarland & Company, Inc., copyright 2006
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M. Site Visit
Contact the Vicksburg National Military Park to set up tours. Go to the website for a virtual tour.

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