Last November, as part of our canoe trip down the Mississippi River from Memphis to the Gulf of Mexico, I was in Vicksburg, Mississippi with Cody Presny and Haley Brasile of Amongst the Current and my paddling partner, Bito Beitzel. My friend, Jerico LeFort, is a paddling enthusiast and a humble river angel (“river angels” help long-distance canoe and kayak paddlers complete their journeys), who happened to be near Vicksburg as Cody, Haley, Bito, and I were about to land. While Cody and Haley were visiting family, Jerico and his trusty lab, Buster Brown, drove Bito and I to Vicksburg National Military Park, which features the iconic battlefield scene as well as the USS Cairo Museum. I could not pass up a chance to learn more about a warship built specifically for battle on the Mississippi River (especially in case one might apprehend us downstream!)
The USS Cairo was one of seven ironclad gunboats built for the Union by river engineer, James B. Eads, during the Civil War. These specialized, heavily-armored ships were made necessary by the invention of the explosive artillery shell in 1822, which the Confederates used in forts along the Lower Mississippi River. Additionally, they differed from old sailing ships used previously in the war in that they had steam engines, 13 cannons, and a top speed of 9 miles per hour. Each of the boats was named after a major town along either the Mississippi or Ohio rivers, including: Carondelet, MO; Cincinnati, OH; Lafayette, PN; Louisville, KY; Mound City, IL; Pittsburgh, PN; and St Louis, MO (later called the Baron De Kalb). The Cairo, unfortunately, was subdued by a Confederate torpedo, and, though it sank thirty-six feet, no members of the crew were lost (unlike the Sultana Disaster, where approximately 1,800 died).
While visiting the recovered ship, I also learned several other neat facts about the sunken vessel:
- The steam engines produced approximately 600 horsepower and required about 2200 lbs. of coal each hour.
- Half of the 158-man crew was comprised of immigrants and many members of the crew had no sailing experience.
- All seven of the ironclads in the Cairo class were built in 100 days per contractual obligations.
- The USS Cairo was the first ship sunk by an electrically-detonated torpedo.
- 12 to 25-inch wooden beams absorbed heavy hits to the armored plates and prevented them from shattering upon impact.
- The 175 ft. ship’s paddlewheel had a 22 ft. diameter and was 15 ft. wide.
- The vessel was recovered in 1964, 102 years after sinking. It was restored by 1977.
Coincidentally, as we were leaving the Port of Vicksburg and the Yazoo River’s mouth, one of the towboats passing by was named the Cairo at mile marker 437.
Vicksburg was a critical, Confederate river town featured in the Union effort to control the Lower Mississippi River down to New Orleans and divide the Confederation. Abraham Lincoln once said, “Vicksburg is the nail head that holds the South’s two halves together…Vicksburg is the key! The war can never be brought to a close until that key is in our pocket.” Evidently, during the war, the river was equally as important as it is today.
While it may no longer be a strategic target in a war effort, Vicksburg is still valuable as a tourist destination with its historical significance and location at the confluence of the Yazoo and Mississippi Rivers. Like many other old, river cities, the rich history has shaped the present state of the city. The more we can learn about these old river cities, the better we can understand the Mississippi River and how it should be respected. A good example came to light a few days later when we visited Natchez, MS, where several blocks of the 300-year-old city had been consumed by the hungry, shifting river channel. Obviously, had planners known about the river’s path of destruction, they may have reconsidered investing in land destined to be washed away within a couple hundred years. By examining how people have historically dealt with living along the river, we are better equipped to coexist with it in our future.
Click “Play” on the video above to see the steamboat, America, drift in sideways to the Yazoo River in Vicksburg.
How can you experience the best of Vicksburg?
Quapaw Canoe Company, Vicksburg, MS: Layne Logue can show you the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers, the Big Black River, Bayou Pierre, and other local waterways nearby from a unique perspective–A CANOE!
Layne, whose father was the US Army Corps of Engineers Chief of Operations along the entire Mississippi River and also a Civil War Park Guide, is probably the most qualified person to consult about the local region’s river and war history, integrated. Quapaw Canoe Company tours feature heritage, nature, ecotourism together in an unforgettable experience.