Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Ahoy, there! Ed Bearss recalls finding, raising the U.S.S. Cairo

Ed Bearss recalls the low-tech manner in which he found the U.S.S. Cairo, the first armored vessel reportedly sunk by an electrically detonated torpedo.

Using an old military compass, the famed historian and two comrades discovered the mud-encased ironclad on the Yazoo River near Vicksburg, Ms. The find was confirmed 53 years ago this week.

The trio used long iron roads to probe the sand and mud.

“We could feel them hitting metal,” he said of the moment of truth.

Bearrs, a tireless Civil War tour guide at 86, recounted efforts to raise the vessel during a talk Tuesday night at the Civil War Roundtable of Atlanta.

Speaking in his cadenced gravelly voice, the Marine and cultural icon entertained the large crowd with his account “of how not to raise an ironclad.”

But raise it they did. Despite financial shortfalls, barge problems and a zero-visibility river that deposited silt at an alarming rate, the vessel was eventually raised in 1960 and 1964-65.

Bearss, determined to raise the vessel, even won $20,000 for funding on “The 64,000 Question” TV show.

Bearrs, who was a historian at Vicksburg National Military Park at the time, recounted the history of the Cairo, which sank Dec. 12, 1862, after it struck a Confederate torpedo. It went down in 12 minutes. About a half dozen sailors were injured.

Hopes of lifting the ironclad and her cargo of artifacts intact were crushed in October 1964 when the three inch cables being used to lift the Cairo cut deeply into its wooden hull. It then became a question of saving as much of the vessel as possible. The wreck was moved in 1977 to the Vicksburg park.

More than 60,000 artifacts were recovered. Bearss brought a few with him Tuesday, and showed photos of other finds, including 13 artillery pieces, a chamber pot, pipes, medicine bottle and shackles for unruly sailors.

Last month, the Civil War buff traveled back to Vicksburg for the unveiling of a bust of him near the Cairo’s wooden hull and iron plates.

The discovery of the Cairo was a defining moment for Bearss, who relived the highs and lows of the salvage operation.

“The ship is a moment in time,” he said Tuesday.

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