‘Pied Piper of history’ will see bust unveiled

Published 12:00 am Friday, October 2, 2009

Edwin C. Bearss will be in Vicksburg Saturday for a ceremony honoring his contribution to the salvage and restoration of the USS Cairo, the Civil War-era Union gunboat preserved at the Vicksburg National Military Park.

A bust of Bearss, who went on to be chief historian of the National Park Service in Washington, D.C., will be unveiled at the ceremony, which begins at 1 p.m. along the red-brick walkway in front of the bow of the Cairo.

Park historian Terry Winschel calls Bearss “the Pied Piper of history” for his crowd-pleasing ability to get folks lined up to learn about the past.

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“His name is very synonymous not only with Vicksburg but also with the gunboat Cairo,” Winschel said. He’ll be introducing Bearss, who is expected to make a few comments. Also present will be the bust’s sponsor, Chris Bradley, who has taken a number of historical tours with Bearss and wanted to honor his work with the Cairo, Winschel said. The bust was cast by artist Art Downey.

Bearss is in Vicksburg leading a weeklong History America Tour to sites important in the Vicksburg Campaign, starting in Memphis and following the route taken by Union forces in capturing the River City in 1862 and 1863. Stops before Vicksburg included Port Gibson, Raymond and Champion Hill, sites of important battles leading up to the siege and surrender of the city.

Bearss served as historian at VNMP from 1955 to 1966, when he was promoted and moved to Washington, D.C. He was also one of the prominent speakers in Ken Burns’ series for PBS, “The Civil War.”

The Cairo was one of seven “city class” Union ironclad gunboats, named for cities along the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, built for river battles during the Civil War. It was commissioned in January 1862, and like all the city-class ironclads, was equipped with 13 cannon.

The gunboat saw limited action early in 1862 at Plum Point in May and Memphis in June, but made a more dangerous and fateful run up the Yazoo River on Dec. 12, aiming to clear the channel and attack Confederate batteries on shore. Lt. Commander Thomas O. Selfridge Jr. manned the Cairo as far as seven miles north of Vicksburg when two explosions from an underwater mine, then called a torpedo, ripped into the boat’s hull. It sank in 36 feet of water in 12 minutes. There was no loss of life.

In 1956, Bearss, along with Don Jacks and Warren Grabau, pinpointed the site where the Cairo rested at the bottom of the Yazoo River. Bearss was instrumental in the salvage operations which brought the Cairo up in 1964 and 1965, as well as its restoration funded by Congress over the next several years.

The boat was accepted into the National Park Service by Congressional act in 1972, and its recovery included a “treasure trove of weapons, munitions, naval stores and personal gear of the sailors who served on board,” VNMP’s Web site states.

Today, about 300,000 visitors view the Cairo each year at the USS Cairo Museum along the VNMP tour road, Winschel said.

A complete history of the USS Cairo, its salvaging from the floor of the Yazoo and its restoration and acceptance by the National Park Service can be found at www.nps.gov/vick/u-s-s-cairo-gunboat.htm and at www.battleofchampionhill.org/vignettes/scrapbook.htm.

Contact Pamela Hitchins at phitchins@vicksburgpost.com