December 12, 1862: The ironclad gunboat USS Cairo sinks in the Yazoo River during the US Civil War. She was built in 1861 by James Eads and Co. in Mound City, Illinois under contract to the US Department of War. She was commissioned in January of 1862 and initially sailed under the command of Lieutenant James M. Prichett for the Army’s Western Gunboat Fleet. She was transferred to the Navy on October 1, 1862.
She was put in the command of Lt. Commander Thomas O. Selfridge, Jr. and was attempting to clear mines from the Yazoo River in the state of Mississippi. Mines at the time were called torpedoes and she was the hit by two rapid explosions caused by a torpedo being detonated by volunteers hiding on the shores. The USS Cairo had the distinction of being the first armored ship to be sunk by an electrically detonated mine. She sank in 12 minutes without loss of life.
The mine, or torpedo, was anchored to the river bottom which lay at a depth of 6 fathoms or 36 feet. Attached to the anchor was a wooden float that raised a 5 gallon glass demijohn (a large bottle frequently used in brewing liquor) filled with gunpowder. From the top of the sealed jar, a wire ran to a galvanic cell on shore. A spark from the shore exploded the gunpowder. Underwater mines were first described in the 14th century by the Chinese during the Ming Dynasty. A Russian engineer was able to detonate an underwater mine using an electrical charge in 1812. Other mines were detonated without sinking the ships.
For 102 years the ship sat at the bottom of the river, slowly being buried in silt. Finally, in 1964, “Operation Cairo” – a group of private citizens – raised the old ship from her watery grave. Unfortunately, techniques weren’t as delicate at the time and extensive damage was caused by the people trying to salvage the ship. She has since been partially restored and is now listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Her engines and boilers were designated a National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers in June 1990.
“Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!” – Admiral David G. Farragut
“The United States lost more men from battle wounds and disease in the Civil War than in any other war of its history, including the Second World War. The battle front stretched from Pennsylvania to New Mexico, and included also the seven seas.” – Richard Weaver
“Offering thanks in the midst of tragedy is an American tradition, … even during a bloody Civil War.” – Abraham Lincoln
“I read The Civil War Infantryman, which talked about making 20-mile marches in the dead heat of summer in wool uniforms, then sitting down to eat salt pork. I’m sleeping in air-conditioned hotels, with good food every day and, like, a made-to-order omelet station. Who am I kidding about how difficult this is?” – Kyle Brady
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