Explosion Sinks the USS Cairo

Hole blown in the port bow of the USS Cairo
Hole blown in the port bow of the USS Cairo

NPS Photo

On December 12, 1862, the USS Cairo was busy clearing Confederate torpedoes (today called underwater mines) from the muddy Yazoo River. Upon hearing small arms fire, Commander Selfridge thought his vessel was under attack and ordered Cairo into position. Two Confederate sailors, Acting Masters Zedekiah McDaniel and Francis M. Ewing, names now lost to history, hid behind a river bank and waited as the Cairo maneuvered to the front of the flotilla.

At the right moment, the two Confederates detonated the torpedoes with an electric charge. Two explosions ripped a large hole in the port bow causing the Cairo to quickly fill with water. Within 12 minutes, it sank to the bottom in six fathoms (36 feet) of water, but with no loss of life. The USS Cairo became the first armored warship in history to be sunk by an electronically detonated mine.

Soon after the sinking the youngest crew member, fifteen year old George Yost, penned an account of the Cairo’s final moments: "...just as we were training on the battery we were struck by a torpedo, which exploded under our starboard bow, a few feet from the center and some 35 or 40 feet from the bow proper just under our provision store room, which crushed in the bottom of the boat so that the water rushed in like the roar of Niagara. In five minutes the Hold was full of water and the forward part of the gunboat was flooded...One of our heaviest bow guns had been dismounted by the force of the explosion injuring three men."

Executive Officer Hiram K. Hazlett and the writer were the last two persons to leave the sinking vessel which "we did by jumping into the "dingey" which was manned by two sailors, and awaited us at the stern...We moved off just in time to escape being swallowed up in the seething caldron of foaming water ... Nothing of the CAIRO could be seen 12 minutes after the first explosion, excepting the smoke stacks, and the flag staff from which still floated the flag above the troubled waters."

Last updated: November 30, 2023

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