Vicksburg National Military Park | USS CAIRO EXHIBIT AND MUSEUM

Ironclad warship USS Cairo at Vicksburg National Military Park

Ironclad warship USS Cairo at Vicksburg National Military Park


The USS Cairo Exhibit and Museum are typically open daily from 8:30 AM to 4:30 PM, except when closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. However, times can always change, so before making travel plans be sure to get the latest schedule on the National Park Service’s Basic Information web page for Vicksburg National Military Park.


The USS Cairo (pronounce KAY-row, not like Cairo in Egypt) was a Union ironclad ship that sank in the Yazoo River on December 12, 1862, the first year that ironclads came on the scene. Such boats made wooden warships obsolete, so both the Union and Confederate states rushed to build them. The Cairo was one of seven City Class ironclads built over 100 days by James Eads, who is considered the “father” of ironclad engineering. A Class is a set of ships all built to the same or near same specifications. There are a number of information panels near the parking area that tell about the different Union ironclads that patrolled the Mississippi, including the other City Class ships.

At the core, ironclads are wooden, steam driven, paddle wheel vessels. Iron plating is added to the outside. While resilient to cannon fire, they can still be sunk (obviously) or disabled. A shot to the rudder can cut the cables that control the ship, thus putting it out of commission, while underwater mines, then called “torpedoes,” could blow a hole in the unprotected bottom hull. The torpedoes were underwater canisters of black powder that could be detonated electronically by men on the shore or by a ship running into one. This is what sank the Cairo while she was on the Yazoo during a mine clearing mission. Despite the explosions and a sinking that took about twelve minutes, nobody was killed.

Iron plating was added down to the waterline to wooden ships to create ironclads

Iron plating was added down to the waterline to wooden ships to create ironclads

Reconstructed rudders of the USS Cairo, Vicksburg National Military Park

Reconstructed rudders of the USS Cairo, Vicksburg National Military Park

While having nothing to do with the fighting at Vicksburg, the Cairo is on display at the park because it was found 16 miles from the mouth of the Yazoo River, which runs into the Mississippi River near Vicksburg. This is the best exhibit in the park, and so far the best exhibit I have seen at any of the battlefield parks in the National Park system. While not a stop on the Vicksburg Battlefield Tour, the exhibit and museum are located on the tour road between stops 7 and 8, Battery Selfridge and the Vicksburg National Cemetery. In fact, the USS Cairo exhibit is located right next to the cemetery entrance, and since the cemetery is best seen on foot, park here and walk the cemetery road, a less than one-mile loop.

The Cairo was found in 1952 by three Civil War buffs (one who was a historian at the park) using nothing but a compass. Whenever they went over the spot in the water above the Cairo, the compass needle deflected from its true bearing. The boat was only in about 40 feet of water. In fact, when she sank, the chimneys protruded out of the water and other Union boats had to come by and knock them off so they wouldn’t cause a navigation hazard and so the Confederates couldn’t find it (the chimneys on the exhibit are reproductions). It took until 1964 for the ship to be raised and until 1984 for the restoration to be completed. Information on the salvage and restoration process, including a short video, are found in the USS Cairo Museum next to the ship, which is displayed outdoors under a large canopy.

USS Cairo is an outdoor exhibit, while the museum is indoors

USS Cairo is an outdoor exhibit, while the museum is indoors

A museum exhibit discusses the salvage and restoration of the Cairo

A museum exhibit discusses the salvage and restoration of the Cairo

The Cairo is pieced together like a dinosaur skeleton in a museum. Whenever you see a T-Rex or a brontosaurus skeleton, only part of that exhibit is real bone. The missing pieces are filled in with plaster castings of the missing bones, then everything is held together by some type of support system. This is the same process used for the Cairo exhibit. Much of the wood on the ship had rotted away or was not salvageable. When looking at the ship, wherever you see new wood, that’s the missing pieces. You can easily tell the old wood from the new. As far as I know, all of the metal is original. My only doubt would be the paddle wheel, for that was brought up from the bottom of the river in a tangled mess that looked like a giant ball of steel, but they may have hammered it out and put it all back together (in the above photo the paddle wheel is the image to the right of the headline, “Restoration of the Cairo”).

Original wood on the USS Cairo is easily distinguished from the new wood

Original wood on the USS Cairo is easily distinguished from the new wood

Wooden ribs hold the USS Cairo together

Wooden ribs hold the USS Cairo together

The Cairo can be viewed from the exterior in its entirety, as walkways take visitors all around the ship. Information panels tell about the ship’s construction and how the different parts worked. Thirteen cannon are positioned where they would have been on the ship when she was in action.

Cannon on the USS Cairo (the crew customized this section by adding railroad rails)

Cannon on the USS Cairo (the crew customized this section by adding railroad rails)

What’s so cool about this exhibit is that it is constructed in such a way that you can “walk on board” and get a feel for what it was like to be on an actual ironclad ship from the Civil War. Inside you can see the original boilers, look up into the iron plated pilothouse where the pilot of the ship steered the boat, and get the same view as the artillery crew had of the cannons on board. Information panels are also in the interior.

Boilers of the USS Cairo, Vicksburg National Military Park

Boilers of the USS Cairo, Vicksburg National Military Park

Interior view of the USS Cairo's bow section

Interior view of the USS Cairo’s bow section

Steel plates protect the pilot house of the USS Cairo

Steel plates protect the pilot house of the USS Cairo

Exterior view of the USS Cairo's pilot house (top)

Exterior view of the USS Cairo’s pilot house (top)

Pistons, oscillating arm, and paddle wheel of the USS Cairo

Pistons, oscillating arm, and paddle wheel of the USS Cairo

Next to the ship exhibit is the USS Cairo Museum. This holds many of the artifacts brought to the surface, including an original gun carriage and the ship’s bell. There is one room where you can read about ironclads and their use on the Mississippi, plus the above mentioned section on the salvage and restoration that you don’t want to miss, but the majority of the museum is actual artifacts, so you can go through it fairly quickly. There is also an information desk and a small souvenir store.

Photo of the USS Cairo

Photo of the USS Cairo

Exhibit on Union ironclad warfare on the Mississippi

Exhibit on Union ironclad warfare on the Mississippi

USS Cairo's bell on display at the USS Cairo Museum

USS Cairo’s bell on display at the USS Cairo Museum

Original gun carriage of the USS Cairo (the ones on the ship exhibit are reproductions)

Original gun carriage of the USS Cairo (the ones on the ship exhibit are reproductions)

Personal items from sailors on the USS Cairo that were brought up during the salvage

Personal items from sailors on the USS Cairo that were brought up during the salvage

Cooking items from the USS Cairo found in the Yazoo River

Cooking items from the USS Cairo found in the Yazoo River

I read everything in the museum, watched the salvage video, and got all of my photos in less than a half hour. I spent another half hour at the ship exhibit, so allow up to one hour for a visit to the USS Cairo and the museum, though I suspect a half hour will do for the casual tourist. Civil War buffs will want to give the exhibit a thorough examination.

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Last updated on January 18, 2022
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