Battle of Vicksburg, MS: Civil War Victory Wasn’t Ironclad

The Sinking of the USS Cairo

by Ria Nicholas

Courtesy Missouri History Museum

Were they awestruck as they boarded her? Or skeptical perhaps, those Union soldiers? Did they brim over with excess pride, like the kid riding a brand new motor scooter on Christmas day, when everyone else just has a bike? Impossible to tell now. But all those feelings and more must have been tossed aboard alongside the artillery. After all, the USS Cairo [KAY row] was, for her time, an example of cutting-edge technology: an ironclad steam-powered paddlewheeler!

Flatboat; engraving by Alfred R. Waud

Imagine, if you can, a time before cars, trucks, trains, or airplanes, a time when roads amounted to little more than rough dirt trails. Transporting crops and other commodities was largely achieved using river boats. The efficiency of the trip depended on the speed of the current and the weight of the cargo. And the upstream leg of the journey, accomplished entirely by manpower, was arduous, to say the least. A round trip could take eight or nine months, and boat owners often found it easier to dismantle their boat, sell the timber, and walk home – along the Natchez Trace, perhaps – than to try to propel it back upstream.

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All that changed with the power of steam.  In 1769, James Watt invented the steam engine, but it wasn’t successfully applied to shipping until Robert Fulton designed his steam paddleboat, the Clermont, in 1807. The invention transformed commerce.

Simple steam power diagram; courtesy Σ64;
image altered to show ‘Paddlewheel’ instead of ‘Generator.

The power of steam essentially works as follows: When water is heated, it turns to steam and expands. If the water is held in a boiler – a metal tank – and prevented from expanding, it will build up tremendous pressure. A pipe and valve at one end of the boiler can be opened to release that steam pressure with great force. Harness that force through pipes and gears to turn paddlewheels, in the case of a ship, or driving wheels, in the case of a locomotive.

During the first half of the 19th century, steam paddlewheelers – either sidewheelers or sternwheelers – performed a variety of tasks.

Towboats moved barges up and down rivers, ferries carried passengers, and snagboats removed tree stumps and other submerged hazards from the water. The most common steam paddle wheeler, the packet boat, carried both crops and passengers.

Turret of the USS Monitor after battle – 1862;
photo in public domain, courtesy US Navy Online Library

By the time of the Civil War, the concept of armored ships had been floating around for some time, but the need hadn’t arisen until the 1820s, with the development of explosive shell-firing guns capable of penetrating a wooden hull. Iron plating didn’t become practical, however, until the power of steam evolved to handle the additional weight.

In 1862, hard on the heels of the legendary ironclad USS Monitor, the Cairo was pressed into service to support Union troops in their capture of Memphis. Later the same year, she took part in the Yazoo Pass Expedition, a joint operation led by Grant’s Army of the Tennessee and Porter’s Mississippi River Squadron, during the Vicksburg Campaign. 

Due to its position on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River, the Confederate stronghold at Vicksburg enjoyed a geographical advantage. The Union-led Yazoo Pass Expedition intended to bypass this bluff, snaking its way through the murky backwaters of the Mississippi Delta. Here it would enter the Yazoo River and approach unopposed. However, obstacles presented by having to breach levees and navigate a maze of channels and lakes, slowed the expedition, allowing Confederate forces time to construct a fort to block and repel the Federal fleet.

During the expedition, the Cairo earned the less-happy distinction of being the first ship ever sunk by a remotely detonated mine.  While attempting to clear mines, or ‘torpedoes,’ from the river in preparation for the attack, Cairo struck a mine. A group of Confederate volunteers, concealed along the riverbank, exploded the mine. In less than 15 minutes Cairo sank to the bottom of the Yazoo River. There the ironclad remained for the next 100 years, covered by a protective blanket of silt.

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Cairo was located in 1956, and efforts to raise the ship finally succeeded in 1964. The thick Mississippi mud in which she had lain encased, had slowed the natural processes of corrosion and decomposition, which allowed for the recovery of numerous historical artifacts and for the restoration of Cairo herself.  Today, you can visit the final resting place of this ironclad paddle steamer at the Vicksburg National Military Park.

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The Military Park, located at 3201 Clay Street in Vicksburg, Mississippi, preserves the site of the Battle of Vicksburg, a 47-day siege ending in the surrender of the city to Union forces – despite the Union’s loss of the Cairo and the failure of the Yazoo Pass Expedition.  It also commemorates the greater Vicksburg Campaign leading up to the Battle.

To visit, park your car at the Visitor Center, and purchase your entrance pass. The fee is about $20 per passenger vehicle. Various annual passes and passes for pedestrians and commercial vehicles are also available. While at the Visitor Center, we greatly enhanced our overall experience by watching the introductory video, which tells the stories of Union and Confederate troops, African American combatants, and local civilians.

From there, we started our 16-mile, self-guided driving tour of the battlefield, including 1,325 historic monuments and markers, 144 cannons, the Shirley House (the only wartime structure remaining inside the Park), the Vicksburg National Cemetery, and the USS Cairo.


I can’t end this blog post without mentioning the Vicksburg National Military Park Trading Card Program. VNMP teamed up with 145 other parks to create the Civil War to Civil Rights trading card program. The National Park Service offers more than 500 trading cards commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. You can only earn the cards by visiting the national parks in person, but you can preview them here.  

Vicksburg National Military Park presents ten cards, honoring the contributions of women, children, African Americans, and commanding officers – with unique and sometimes surprising stories. Collect the card for artillery commander John Wesley Powell, who went on to explore the Grand Canyon with only one arm, or the card for soldier Albert Cashier, who was actually a woman!

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