What was an Ironclad in the Civil War?

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More than just the Monitor and the Merrimack

Virtually every student of the Civil War has heard of the epic battle between the Monitor and the Merrimack, two early ironclad warships. But were they the only ones? Not by a long shot.

The USS Cairo

The transition from sail to steam and wood to iron happened slowly, spurred on by the needs of war and dependable transportation. The USS Cairo was a massive ironclad ship, one of the City class. There were eight boats in all in the class. James Eads of St. Lous designed them. They had twin engines and a central paddle wheel protected by iron casement. Cairo had three rifled guns, a 30 pound Parrot, a 32 pounder and a 30 pounder, in addition to a smooth bore Dahlgren. It carried a crew of 251 men, and was 175 feet long, 52 feet wide, and required six feet of water for effective navigation.

When the ship launched in 1861, Flag Officer Andrew Hull Foote was in command. He participated in the bombardment at Plum Point Bend and effectively made the capture of Fort Pillow possible. The ship also participated in a battle with Confederate gunboats in June 1862, where it emerged victoriously.

The USS Cairo was short-lived. It had the dubious distinction of being the first vessel destroyed by a remotely activated mine on December 12, 1862. Confederates on the shore watched it come downriver and detonated the mine just as the ship reached it. The ship sank within twelve minutes, but there were no casualties.

The ship sank into the mud, largely forgotten, until it was found in 1956, and raised in 1965, after being cut into three sections. Today, it is part of the NPS museum at Vicksburg.