Written by: Jeff Rent
Case Filed: 11/26/03 - Vicksburg, Mississippi
Executive Producer: Rick Garner
One of the highlights of any trip to the Vicksburg National Military Park is a chance to explore the legendary ironclad Cairo. Commissioned in 1862, the Cairo was a state-of-the-art warship.
Cairo Museum Curator Elizabeth Joyner says, "She could float in as little as six feet of water."
Sent south to help with the siege against Vicksburg by Union troops, the Cairo met a quick demise while on patrol in the Yazoo River.
Joyner continues, "She was sunk at approximately 12 noon on December 12th, 1862. And she was on a special mission traveling with a full flotilla of vessels to find torpedoes, or mines as we could call them today, that had been planted in the water by the Confederates. And she was going to destroy them."
But it was those very mines which ended the short life of the Cairo.
Vicksburg National Military Park Ranger Robbie Smith says, "It was hit twice. Once on the port bow and that is the hit that was given credit for really sinking the boat." Joyner adds, "And it knocked a large gaping hole to the side of her port bow section and dislodged her number one gun. She went down in about 12 minutes."
Amazingly, none of the crew died but the ship was lost for nearly a hundred years until being discovered at the bottom of the Yazoo River in 1956. It would be more than 20 years before the Cairo would arrive at it's final resting place: the Vicksburg National Military Park.
The display contains as much of the original ship as could be salvaged, including the original boilers, some of its iron skin and many of the ships cannons.
Despite the fact that the Cairo has been in Vicksburg for nearly 30 years, nobody had ever answered, let alone ask, the question: are the Cairo's guns still loaded? A few weeks ago, that question was asked by Joyner.
"I came across information...it said that some of them had been loaded when they were brought up. It didn't make any mention that these particular ones had been unloaded, and I thought, 'Well, ' need to check this out.' "
So, Joyner assembled a small crew and began the task of looking down the bore of each gun with a powerful flashlight.
Smith says, "Sure enough, we were able to see two whole shells and one partial shell in the bore of those pieces."
Joyner says she was "shocked a little" and that the find was "kind of scary."
The guns in question were located on the bow (front) and starboard (right) side of the Cairo. After the discovery, Joyner called in explosives experts from Camp Shelby. They brought a portable x-ray machine to look inside the guns.
Joyner says, "It just wasn't strong enough to really penetrate the full skin of the tube. But they were able to determine that at least one of them is not a threat." Joyner and her staff say there's no immediate threat to visitors, and this discovery only adds to the legend of the Cairo.
Smith says the loaded cannons proves that the Cairo was ready for battle. "She is still commissioned a United States Ship Cairo. She's still prepared and ready for action today because of that. She's been this way for 140 years. The fact that we realized it makes it no more dangerous than setting sedentary for 140 years."
Officials with the military park will next turn to the Navy in hopes of determining whether the remaining two guns pose any threat. Joyner says visitors should not worry, that the loaded guns are not within reach of visitors.
USS Cairo at Vicksburg National Military Park
Specifics about USS Cairo
Historical images of USS Cairo
Highly detailed model of USS Cairo