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RECOVERYof an Ironclad U.S.S. CAIRO

The Union ironclad Cairo was designed by Samuel M. Pookand built by James B. Heeds. It was finished in January of 1862.The vessel's commander was Thomas Selfridge. Thomas Selfridge wasa dedicated and ambitious man who was unfortunate to serve mostlyon doomed vessels, one of which would be the U.S.S. Cairo. TheCairo and similar ironclad gunboats were used by the north duringthe Civil War to try and wrest the lower Mississippi River fromthe Confederacy.

TheCairo was an enormous vessel measuring 175 feet long by about 50feet wide and weighing about 512 tons. It was fitted with 14 gunsranging from rifled 42 pounders to a 12 pound Howitzer. The crewconsisted of 17 officers, 27 petty officers, 111 seamen, 3landsmen, 1 apprentice, 12 firemen, and 4 coalheavers.

After several successful campaigns along theMississippi River the Cairo was ordered to help support the Uniontroops at the siege of Vicksburg. Near the mouth of the YazooRiver, which runs into the Mississippi just north of Vicksburg,two tinclad boats on patrol, had spotted a number of Confederategalvanic torpedoes (mines). Upon returning the captains of thetinclads told of the number of torpedoes spotted in the Yazoo atthe point where they had turned around. They thought if protectedby one or two gunboats the infernal machines could be safelylifted from the water and deactivated.

Selfridge requested use of the Cairo. Also thegunboat Pittsburgh and the ram Queen of the West were chosen togo along. The tinclads were to move close to shore. The ram wouldfollow the two tinclads and the two gunboats would bring up therear shelling the banks whenever necessary. At 7:30 AM onDecember 12 they proceeded up the Yazoo in the order designated.Along the way they were harassed by Confederate sharpshooters onthe banks. One of the tinclads, the Marmora found where thetorpedos were and had stopped to investigate. Selfridge, becominginpatient, moved the Cairo ahead. The bow of the Cairo had turnedtoward shore and backed out to take the lead upstream. As sheproceeded there were two explosions, one close to her portquarter and the other under the starboat bow. The Cairo had hittwo of the torpedos, took on water, and sank in about 12 minutes.The Queen of the west came to the aid of Cairo's crew, all ofwhich were rescued. Nothing was saved except some small arms anda few personal belongings. Because the Cairo sank in hostilewaters, no attempt to salvage her was undertaken. Leaving theCairo in her watery and muddy grave, possibly to be lost forever.

The USS Cairo lay in her grave for almost 100years until Edwin C. Bearss, a Vicksburg National Military Parkhistorian set in motion a chain of events that would rescue theCairo and her contents. One cold November morning in 1956,Bearss, Warren Grabau, a fellow Civil War buff, and Don Jacks, apark maintenance man set out to find the lost ironclad and proveits identity. To help in locating the Cairo a mariners compasswas place on the bottom of a wooden boat while searching the areawhere the Cairo was thought to have went down based on research.After probing the area watching the compass for any deflectioncreated by passing over the mass of iron below, the men were ableto pinpoint the wreck. The Cairo was found about 30 feet from theYazoo's east bank and about three miles below Snyder's Bluff.

The next step was to prove that it was theCairo and not just a barge that by some chance sank in the samearea where the Cairo was thought to have gone down.

Three years went by until Bearss and hispartners got the break they needed to confirm the wreckage.Bearss persuaded two local scuba divers that diving for the Cairowould be fun. The men were James Hart and Ken Parks from Jackson,Miss. In October of 1959 the three men and the divers headed upthe Yazoo River one more time. The water was so muddy that thedivers had to work in total darkness and a swift current madetheir work even more difficult. When they found the Cairo theydiscovered that the pilot house was the only thing protrudingabove the mud! They tried to get inside but the mud had filledthe inside also. They came back up with only the port covers fromthe pilothouse and a few planks for testing. This made them wantmore.

Only known photographof the U.S.S Cairo, taken early in 1862 while she was beingoutfitted at Cairo, III.

After a bit of persuasion some locals lent andgave equipment to help in an attempt to raise the Cairo. A lumbercompany even volunteered the service of a tug and a derrick. Butnothing was easy. First the divers spent 10 days moving silt fromthe pilothouse using jets a firehouse. Finally they were able topass 1-inch thick cables through four of the portholes of thepilothouse. The derrick then went to work with the pilothouse wasfirst to break water and be recovered. Later that evening a8-inch navel gun joined the pilothouse on the bank of the river.These were the only parts of the Cairo to be recovered that day.

Seven months passed without funding and much ofthe salvage interest died. Then Gov. Ross Barrett persuadedseveral state agencies to provide funds. The MississippiAgricultural and Industrial Board were assigned to raise theironclad intact. Bearss had appeared on a nationwide televisionquiz show winning the $10,000 jackpot for his knowledge of theCivil War. Bearss donated the money to help raise the Cairo.

In the summer of 1964 Bearss, Jacks, VicksburgMilitary Park Historian Albert Banton and scuba divers Parks andHart began a 30 day survey to determine the condition of theCairo's structural timbers. The New England Naval and MaritimeMuseum joined the efforts. Both U.S. Navy and professional diverswere brought in to help clear the cleared silt while workmenraised the remaining cannons and carriages from the Cairo, alongwith hundreds of other historical objects, including manybottles.

By August 3, 1964 the great adventure was wellunderway. Dredges cleared away silt and debris which hadaccumulated while the project was put on hold. Divers see-sawedhuge cables measuring 2 1/2 to 3 inches in diameter under thehull. By October 17, seven of these cables were in place and thenext day the raising was to be started. Four derricks werepositioned on the Yazoo with a combined lifting capacity of 1,000tons. Much to everyone's surprise the Cairo, with the weight ofher thick armor, water logged timbers, and mud filled hull, wereto much even for the power of these enormous machines.

Hundredsof U.S. Navy Mustard and Pepper bottles like these were found onthe Cairo. The two in this picture are reproductions, selling inthe Cairo museums gift shop for $9.00.

Although the ship was not raised clear of thewater, it was moved about 70 feet upstream. A barge was thenbrought in and sank where the Cairo's old grave was. The plan wasto sink the barge and then place the Cairo on it, raising the twotogether by pumping the water out of the sunken barge. Again thehuge derricks went to work. Again the total weight of the Cairoproved to be to much. While trying to lift the Cairo onto thebarge the cables sawed through her hull splitting the Cairo inthree pieces. Now in three pieces, each of considerably lessweight, the derrick were able to succeed in the raising. OnDecember 12, 1964 the last section was raised and lowered ontothe barge. It was exactly 102 years to the day since the gunboathad sunk.

Even in three sections that the Cairo wasbrought up in she still proved to be a treasure loaded witheveryday objects of Naval life, some previously unknown. One ofthese unknowns was the matter of food and drink. Evidence showsthat the sailors ate in messes, about 15 to each one. Every messhad a special chest to hold its gear: tin plates, cups, spoons,glass condiment bottles, scrub brushes, and a washtub. Every mantook care of his own and had his names scratched on each piece.Among the artifacts found were multi-sided glass condimentbottles with embossing reading “U.S. NAVY /PEPPER” or “U.S. NAVY / MUSTARD” onthe sided. More than 300 of these bottles were found on board,some containing their original contents. Among other bottlesfound were whiskies, rums, wines and champagnes, some unopened.Other bottles offering evidence of the medical care. Some ofwhich still contained contents such as potassium chlorite, bluemass for syphilis, quinine, rhubarb, ammonia, sulfur, zincchloride and others. Many other artifacts were recoveredincluding personal belongings, weapons and ammunition.

The Cairo rested for about 12 years at theIngalls Shipyard in Pascagoula, Mississippi, before beingreturned to Vicksburg in 1977 under custody of the National ParkService. The research and reassemble of the Cairo and itscontents was completed in 1984 and placed on exhibit at theVicksburg National Military Park for anyone who may want toexperience what life was like on a Civil War ironclad a time longago.

Among the many artifacts on display in themuseum are a large grouping of bottles taken from the Cairo.These include the regulation Navy Mustard and Pepper bottles.Several years ago the Park Service had a number of reproductionsof these U.S. Navy Mustard and U.S. Navy Pepper bottlesreproduced as its glass blowing shops in Jamestown, Virginia.These bottles are sold in the park's gift and souvenir shop for$9.00 each. They look identical to the originals even havingpontil scarred bases. However unlike the originals which wereaqua in color, these reproductions were blown in a lightyellowish green color.


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