One of seven shallow-draft City Class river ironclads, The U.S.S. Cairo was commissioned in January of 1862. The formidable gunboat and her “six sisters” prowled the Mississippi River and connecting shallow waterways, menacing Confederate supply lines and shore batteries. Named after towns along the upper Mississippi and Ohio rivers, the City Class gunboats were designed by Samuel M. Pook and built by James B. Eads.
The Cairo’s career was short, seeing limited action in battles at Plum Point in May, and Memphis in June, 1862.
The Cairo's skipper, Lt. Commander Thomas O. Selfridge, Jr., was an aggressive and skilled captain. On the cold morning of December 12, 1862, Selfridge led a small flotilla of gunboats into the hazardous confines of the Yazoo River. Tasked with destroying Confederate batteries and clearing the river of torpedoes (underwater mines) the flotilla inched its way up the murky waters. As the Cairo reached a point seven miles north of Vicksburg the flotilla came under fire and the aggressive Selfridge ordered his guns to the ready and called for full steam, bringing the ironclad into action. Seconds later, disaster struck. Cairo was rocked by two explosions in quick succession. The first tore and gaping hole into the port bow of the wooden hulled ironclad. The second detonated a second later near the armored belt amidships on the starboard side. The hole on the bow proved to be catastrophic. As the doomed ironclad took on water, Slefridge ordered the Cairo to be beached and the crew to abandon ship. Within twelve minutes the Cairo slid from the river bank into six fathoms (36 feet) of water without any loss of life. Cairo has the dubious distinction as the first warship in history to be sunk by an electrically detonated torpedo/mine.
Over the years the gunboat was soon forgotten and her watery grave was slowly covered by a shroud of silt and mud. Protected by this protective ‘cocoon’, Cairo became a time capsule in which her priceless artifacts were preserved in a largely oxygen-free environment. Her whereabouts became a matter of speculation as members of the crew had died and local residents were unsure of the location.
As the Centennial of the Civil War approached, Edwin C. Bearss, Historian at Vicksburg National Military Park, was able to plot the approximate site of the wreck. Using a pocket compass and probes, Bearss and two companions, Don Jacks and Warren Grabau, set out to solve the mystery. By 1956, they were reasonably convinced they had found the Cairo, but three years lapsed before divers brought up an armored port cover confirming the find. A heavy accumulation of mud, a swift current, and near zero visibility deterred the divers as they explored the submerged 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. 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 of 1964 when the three inch steel lifting cables cut deeply into the Cairo’s fragile wooden hull. A decision was made to recover the Cairo in three sections. By the end of December 1964, the battered remains were put on barges and towed to Vicksburg. In the summer of 1965 the barges carrying the Cairo were towed to Ingalls Shipyard 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. Nevertheless, it was here that the Cairo began to deteriorate in earnest.
In 1972, the U.S.. Congress enacted legislation authorizing the National Park Service to accept title to the Cairo and reassemble the remnants for display in Vicksburg National Military Park. Delays in funding halted progress until June of 1977, when the vessel was transported to the park and partially reconstructed on a concrete foundation near the Vicksburg National Cemetery. The recovery of artifacts from the Cairo revealed a treasure trove of weapons, munitions, naval stores, and personal property that help tell the story of the sailors that once called the ship home. The gunboat and its artifacts can now be seen along the tour road at the USS. Cairo Museum.