The Civil War – The Sinking of the USS Cairo Gunboat

By C.J. Johnson

On December 12, 1862, the USS Cairo was struck by two mines, known at the time as torpedoes, and sank within just minutes. On the heels of the defeat of Union forces at Fredericksburg, Virginia, the sinking of the Cairo was another humiliating loss for the Federal government.

This 175 foot long, 512-ton gunboat was protected by 2 ½ inch plate iron sheets backed by a two foot thickness of white oak timbers, which would take the shock of shells hitting the hull.

The Cairo saw action at the occupations of Clarksville and Nashville in February, in April at Fort Pillow, and at Memphis in May, 1862. She was also part of the Union fleet that engaged Confederate warships south of Memphis in June 1862. She had a short life as she sank less than a year after being commissioned on January 16, 1862.

She slept on the river bottom for another one hundred and two years before being discovered after years of searching by Vicksburg National Military Park Historian Edwin C. Bearss, along with Don Jacks and Warren Grabau. The Cairo was raised on the anniversary of her sinking, December 12, 1964.

The National Park Service cites the following history of the USS Cairo. “The U.S.S. Cairo was one of seven ironclad gunboats named in honor of towns along the upper Mississippi and Ohio rivers. These powerful ironclads were formidable vessels, each mounting thirteen big guns (cannon). On them rested in large part, Northern hopes to regain control of the lower Mississippi River and split the Confederacy in two.

The “city class” gunboats were designed by Samuel M. Pook and built by river engineer James B. Eads. Cairo was constructed at Mound City, Illinois, and commissioned in January 1862… The Cairo’s skipper, Lt. Commander Thomas O. Selfridge, Jr., was rash and ambitious, a stern disciplinarian, but an aggressive and promising young officer.

On the cold morning of December 12, 1862, Selfridge led a small flotilla up the Yazoo River, north of Vicksburg, to destroy Confederate batteries and clear the channel of torpedoes (underwater mines). As the Cairo reached a point seven miles north of Vicksburg the flotilla came under fire and Selfridge ordered the guns to ready.

As the gunboat turned towards shore disaster struck. Cairo was rocked by two explosions in quick succession which tore gaping holes in the ship’s hull. Within twelve minutes the ironclad sank into six (6) fathoms (36 feet) of water without any loss of life. Cairo became the first ship 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 sand. Impacted in mud, Cairo became a time capsule in which her priceless artifacts were preserved.

Her whereabouts became a matter of speculation as members of the crew had died and local residents were unsure of the location. By studying contemporary documents and maps, Edwin C. Bearss, Historian at Vicksburg National Military Park, was able to plot the approximate site of the wreck…”

It took years to determine how to raise the Cairo, clean and restore the vessel, as well as fund the project. The USS Cairo gunboat is now on display at the Vicksburg National Military Park, next to a museum, which displays numerous artifacts recovered from the Cairo.