Candlelight tour gives visitors a unique look at the USS Cairo

Published 12:14 am Sunday, December 9, 2012

History enthusiasts were treated to an immersive tour of the USS Cairo Saturday night, four days before the 150th anniversary of its sinking, with park rangers and volunteers dressed as Civil War-era sailors, officers, soldiers and civilians.

At each station, the rangers and volunteers gave first-person narratives of the events leading up to and immediately after the sinking of the Cairo, one of the earliest ironclad gunboats used in the war.

The Cairo sank Dec. 12, 1862 leading a flotilla of gunships down the Yazoo River. The ship tripped a wire, becoming the first victim of an electrically-detonated torpedo in the history of naval warfare.

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Glenn Hayes, of Palisades Colorado is doing research for a book on the Civil War and previously visited the cemetery.

“I thought it was really good,” Hayes said. “I think that one thing that surprised me was learning about all the different languages that were spoken on the boat.”

Hayes referred to one of the narratives from a sailor who described the difficulties working with 19th century immigrants aboard the Cairo.

Park Ranger and USS Cairo Site Supervisor Raymond Hamel kicked off the tour, saying he hoped that it would give an added dimension to the visitors’ perception of the ship.

“We’re here not to celebrate the carnage of a horrible period in American history, but to commemorate it and give thanks for the wonderful resource we have now — the last ironclad gunboat that’s intact.”

The rangers and volunteers gave detailed descriptions, starting with a confederate soldier who demonstrated how the rudimentary torpedoes worked.

Thick, glass jugs filled with explosives were laid across the bottom of the river, connected by a wire attached to the detonators. When the detonators were pulled, the same chemicals used in matches today were lit, setting off explosions along the line.

The tour proceeded onto the ship, where visitors learned about the struggle to keep the steam-ship fueled with coal. The tour continued, with actors describing the celebrations in Vicksburg after the sinking, the terror of a sinking boat in enemy territory and the disappointment slaves held when learning that the Union army suffered defeat just miles north of the city.

Beth Palmer and Dave Rorick, both of Vicksburg, were preparing to go on the second tour about 6 p.m.

“It’s just part of our heritage,” Rorick said. “We figure this is a great way to learn a little more about the history around us.”

“We’re relatively new to Vicksburg,” Palmer said. “I heard about the candlelight tour they did in the cemetery and it sounded really cool. I thought it would be atmospheric.”

Afterwards, Hamel was pleased with the results of the first tour.

“This is the first time we’ve ever done anything like this,” Hamel said. “The venue at night lends itself to a good ambiance for this.”