Paddlewheelers, Salvors and Designers

On the way to a paddle wheeler passenger vessel project at Cape Girardeau, I passed Vicksburg and decided to stay the night. The next morning I took a quick drive through the Vicksburg battle field and came upon the USS Cairo, the remains of a Civil War era ironclad river gunboat that is now beautifully displayed at the battle field.

The vessel is part of the amazing story of the seven City Class river gunboats. With the Civil War looming, it became apparent that absolute naval dominance of the Mississippi river would be required.

The Union needed gunboats upriver quickly and the solution was provided by two unsung maritime greats; Samuel Pook and James Eads. Pook designed an excellent ironclad river paddle wheeler gunboat and Eads, a Mississippi salvor and brilliant self taught engineer, became the builder.

Eads had made a very good living salvaging things that were sunk or damaged on the river and now offered to build seven copies of Pook’s design. To get this job done would require Congressional funding and this would move no quicker in those days than it does today. Instead, Eads, a staunch Unionist, just decided to start construction and ask for cash on delivery. Eads delivered the gun boats in 100 days and they were put into action in very early 1862.

The first major action was the battle of Memphis in June of 1862 (An earlier skirmish actually predated the Monitor Merrimack engagement) where five of the City Class boats helped destroy the Confederate force in about an hour, which in turn resulted in the fall of Memphis.

In December of that year, one of the City Class gunboats, the USS Cairo, ran into a mine on the Yazoo River and sank, but the other City Class boats quickly became the prototypes of naval vessels that would change the way a war was fought.

The gunboats were used at Vicksburg next, where they ran past the city’s batteries, which allowed Grant to operate downstream of the city. This allowed him to encircle Vicksburg and open the defeat of the South. The Vicksburg campaign was a truly brilliant example of the type of joint forces assault that would not be seen until the Allied amphibious operations of World War II and Grant regarded the availability of the City Class type gunboats as vital to the success of the Vicksburg campaign.

Later one of the City Class boats had a boiler explosion due to a lucky hit on the boilers, and the other five vessels were scrapped at the end of the war because the rapidly advancing war time technology made them obsolete. And such ended the service of the City Class gunboats.

Meanwhile, the sinking location of the USS Cairo became part of legend, and not until the 1950’s was the vessel actually located by some dedicated enthusiasts. The vessel recovery became a privately funded effort and the vessel was eventually recovered with the help of Bisso Salvage, another famous Mississippi salvor. The salvage is a long and exciting story, but the end is what makes it all worth.

Today the USS Cairo is displayed in an absolutely stunning fashion at the Vicksburg battle field. It is a truly rare instance where viewers can have such intimate contact with such a historically significant vessel and, furthermore, have close viewing access to the incredibly large and complete collection of artifacts that were recovered from the wreck including the engineer’s tools.

The vessel has been ghosted, which means that its original outline has been recreated outside the actual remains to indicate the vessel’s original shape and is sheltered beneath a beautiful open air stretched canvas canopy. Remarkably, the unrestored appearance of the vessel aids in appreciating the vessel’s arrangement and structural details. A beautifully designed network of walkways allows visitors to walk through the vessel while at the same time allowing viewers to truly become part of the ship and to get a sense of the scale and technology that was used.

While, in appearance, the City Class gunboats are closer to the Merrimack (or maybe Fulton’s Demologos) than the Monitor, their sizing, construction, arrangement and powering are nothing short of excellently modern. As a naval architect it is quite common to see a design and to be able to criticize it on a number of issues from the point of view of hindsight, but on these vessels I doubt that anybody could have done a better job at the time. When realizing that seven of these vessels were built in 100 days, one can only marvel at the brilliance, boldness and skill of Pook and Eads.