Sunday, June 12, 2011

Ironclad River Gunboat Cairo

Image from wikipedia, PD. USS Cairo in the Mississippi River, 1862

Cairo, Illinois is a river port town at the bottom of the state of Illinois where the Ohio River flows into the Mississippi River. The early settlers had noticed that it resembled Egypt's Nile Delta, so they named it Cairo, but the Americanized pronunciation is like KAY-row. In fact the area around there is called Egypt, or Little Egypt, to this day.

Cairo was already an important point for the riverboat trade before the secession crisis turned into the Civil War, and when that happened it became far more important as a base of operations for the Federal forces by land and riverboat.

Illinois stayed in the Union, but right across both rivers were slave states, and Federal troops moved early on to secure the place as a base. A big part of the plans brewing in Washington as to how to conquer the South involved securing the Mississippi and other rivers, to cut the South in half and control traffic on the water.

The planners were initially thinking about having 12 to 20 river gunboats. And the Federal government had money to order their construction, which would provide jobs for the builders, and for crews afterwards. Some of the companies involved were in the 'border' states, or slave states that had not seceded from the Union, Missouri and Kentucky, as well as Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania and other places along the rivers.

The one shown above in the Mississippi River was built under a contract from the Army, not the Navy, from August 1861, along with a total of seven in the class. Three built at Mound City, and four more at St. Louis. They were fitted with 2 1/2 inches of armor on the casemate, which are those main 'walls' you see coming up from the deck.

They could go 8 knots. That is something like the idle speed of a modern car, moving slowly but steadily. The project went over budget by about $12,000 and took longer than they thought, but the seven gunboats were ready in January 1862. These seven became the backbone of the River Squadron. For the first ten months they were Army gunboats, and went to the Navy in October 1862, although their officers were from the Navy all along.

The guns were:

3x 7-inch 42-pdr army rifles
3x 8-inch, 64-pdr, 63-cwt smooothbores
6x 32-pdr, 42-cwt smoothbores
1x 30-pdr Parrott rifle

The boats in the class were:

Mound City
St. Louis

The Cairo fought the Confederate rams at Memphis among other actions. During the Yazoo Expedition, part of the operations against Vicksburg, she struck a mine (torpedo) while trying to clear mines, and sank, December 12, 1862. The next July the same thing happened to the St. Louis. The other five survived to be sold off after the war was over.

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In the 1960's during the Centennial of the Civil War, a project was undertaken to raise the Cairo back up. Unfortunately Dr Walter Johnson died while working on the project, but she was successfully raised. People today can visit and walk around on her, to see what these boats were like, and someone recorded that, so here are a couple minutes worth of video clips on the outside, on deck, and then down inside, by the guns.

As you look at the size of this gunboat, consider that even with the 75 tons of armor she still only draws six feet of water, a very important consideration in the rivers, which may be deep and may be shallow in different parts. This is also the reason they needed flat bottoms and the paddle wheel for propulsion, instead of a keel and screw like an ocean-going design. Those would too easily run aground or snag in the rivers. They did add another 47 tons of armor later on to make them stronger.

The Cairo is 175 feet long. by 51 feet wide.
There were two other gunboats at the Battle of Shiloh, in the Spring of 1862, that were the same length, one of them five feet longer, but those two at Shiloh were narrower, only 36 feet vs 51 feet wide (that is the beam).

The Exterior of the Cairo runs 1:16

The Interior of the Cairo runs 2:47

Sources of information:
wikipedia, ironclads
you tube
Tony Gibbons, Warships and Naval Battles of the Civil War, Gallery Books, New York, 1989.

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  1. They are fascinating ships, was watching Sahara on Saturday and the opening scene is a Confederate ironclad escaping a Union blockade taking and receiving fire.

  2. They would still be something to reckon with today, too, with even the first 2 1/2 inches of armor it is right up there with the tanks of WW2.

    In reality, in mud conditions, with standing water, modern tanks going 11 mph and rolling with the uneven terrain feel like you're riding an ironclad in the water.

    There is a school of thought that the February 1862 fall of Forts Henry and Donelson, and then the failure to make up for it at Shiloh in April, basically did the South in, although there was a long way to go to make it effective.

    If so, then the arrival of this class of seven boats in January to make the February campaign possible would be an important factor.

  3. the wieght of some of these ships makes my mind boggle.

  4. Just counting the armor alone, it sounds bad. That's about the weight of two or three tanks, after the second set of armor, and most tanks will sink like rocks. But spread out over the wider area, it looks like it worked.

    I was reading about your boat project, it sounds cool. We have ideas about teepees, trailers, houseboats, dumpsters, or shipping container homes by turns, and yours reminded me of the houseboat part of that.

  5. This was mindblowingly interesting. :D

  6. Wasn't this the ship they were looking for in Sahara? Or something similar?

  7. I don't know, but they found it and brought it up, cleaned it up, and people can walk around on it now. From Sahara now I am thinking about a Humphrey Bogart movie where he was in a Stuart tank.