By Bill Minor
JACKSON – It’s good to see USS Cairo, the Union navy’s Civil War iron-clad gunboat, after being hoisted nearly 50 years ago, from the muck on the bottom of the Yazoo River at Vicksburg, is finally getting its place in the sun.
Cairo’s hull (actually a line drawing thereof) is on the back of a new U.S. coin: the newly-issued Mississippi quarter. Before a crowd mostly of school kids, the Cairo-backed coin made its debut two weeks ago at the historic vessel’s permanent home in the Vicksburg National Military Park.
“For a 150 year-old ship, she’s in pretty good shape,” says park Superintendent Michael Madell.
Much history is embodied in the story of the Civil War gunboat before and since its recovery. It was sunk by a mine in December, 1862, by what you might call the original IED (the favorite insurgent weapon in Iraq and Afghanistan) ingeniously detonated electronically by Confederate volunteers.
Its grave was found mired in the Yazoo River mud by ebullient Civil War historian Ed Bearss in 1960. Three years later serious salvage efforts began with limited resources. In a perilous operation in 1964 with cables to raise intact the wood-hull gunboat and its dozens of valuable artifacts, all were nearly lost in a crumbling heap until it was decided to cut the Cairo into three sections.
But because of the cost, the how and where the Civil War vessel might be preserved remained in serious doubt. “Save the Cairo” coin jars began to appear in restaurants and shops and school children tried to raise money, but not enough. Finally, the federal government came to the rescue in 1972 when Congress passed a bill – signed by Republican President Richard Nixon – for the National Park Service to take over the Cairo, finish its restoration and display it at the Vicksburg Military Park.
Now under a tension-fabric awning to provide cover, the bow section of the old vessel – the only Civil War Union ironclad still in existence – stands on a concrete foundation, its original 8-inch cannons peering through their gun ports. Among an amazing trove of its artifacts are such items as dairies of Cairo’s sailors. Incidentally, all of the 250-member crew was rescued by a nearby Union vessel.
I’m glad I had met and heard Bearss describing Civil War battles with the passion of a sports announcer at an exciting football game. Madell says Bearss, now in his 80s, is still giving guided Civil War tours.
Gov. Ross Barnett, during whose administration the Cairo salvaging began, loved to tell in a gravelly drawl his yarn about the Civil War ship’s recovery:
“You know, when they located the Cairo on the Yazoo River bottom, they found a lantern that was still lit.” Ross chuckled.
“This here fella from over at Vicksburg says to me, ‘That’s nothing Ross, I caught a 500 pound catfish in the Mississippi River the other day.’
“So I said to him,” Ross related, “That’s really something. Now, if you knock 200 pounds off your catfish, I’ll blow out my lantern.”
You might say the good old Cairo lives to fight again. Or better still, to give many thousands of visitors to the Vicksburg National Military Park an extraordinary glimpse into our nation’s history.
Columnist Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman at firstname.lastname@example.org.