This Day in History – December 12th, 1862

The Pook Turtles, or City class gunboats to use their semi-official name, were war vessels intended for service on the Mississippi River during the American Civil War. They were also sometimes referred to as “Eads gunboats.” The labels are applied to seven vessels of uniform design built from the keel up in Carondelet, Missouri shipyards owned by James Buchanan Eads. Eads was a wealthy St. Louis industrialist who risked his fortune in support of the Union. The City Class gunboats were the United States’ first ironclad warships, and the first of these was the USS Cairo, named for Cairo, Illinois. 


Cairo was built in 1861 by James Eads and Co., Mound City, Illinois, under contract to the United States Department of War. She was commissioned as part of the Union Army’s Western Gunboat Flotilla, U.S. Navy Lieutenant James M. Prichett in command.

Cairo served with the Army’s Western Gunboat Flotilla, commanded by Flag Officer Andrew Hull Foote, on the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers and their tributaries until transferred to the Navy October 1st, 1862 with the other river gunboats.

Active in the occupation of Clarksville, Tennessee, February 17th, 1862, and of Nashville, Tennessee, February 25th, Cairo stood down the river April 12th escorting bomb vessels to begin the lengthy operations against Fort Pillow. An engagement with Confederate gunboats at Plum Point Bend on May 11th marked a series of blockading and bombardment activities which culminated in the abandonment of the Fort by its defenders on June 4th.


Two days later, June 6th, 1862, Cairo joined in the triumph of seven Union ships and a tug over eight Confederate gunboats off Memphis, Tennessee, an action in which five of the opposing gunboats were sunk or run ashore, two seriously damaged, and only one managed to escape. That night Union forces occupied the city. Cairo returned to patrol on the Mississippi until November 21st when she joined the Yazoo Pass Expedition.

On December 12th, 1862, while clearing mines from the river preparatory to the attack on Haines Bluff, Mississippi, Cairo struck a “torpedo” (naval mine) detonated by volunteers hidden behind the river bank and sank in 12 minutes; there were no casualties.

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