Losing the Cairo: A Yankee Pilot Recalls the Yazoo Disaster

    In December 1862, the Federal armies based in western Tennessee and Mississippi stood poised to embark on one of the most critical operations of the war: the assault on the Mississippi River bastion of Vicksburg. General U.S. Grant and his army was already busily preparing for a multi-front drive on Vicksburg, one of the key elements of which was a water-borne assault on the northern flank of the city via the Yazoo River. To ensure that Federal troops could safely enter the area, the brown water Navy engaged in frequent patrols of the Yazoo. 

    Among those sailing upon the Yazoo River was an Ohioan who was intimately familiar with the region. His name was John F. Morton. Prior to the war, Morton had worked the Yazoo for eight years as a pilot aboard several steamboats and as such knew the river as well as anyone in Federal uniform. Morton had been assigned as a special pilot to the Mississippi Squadron in August 1862, having previously served as a lieutenant in the 56th Ohio Infantry. 

    In the following extraordinary letter, Morton describes discovering Confederate torpedoes in the Yazoo and was aboard the U.S.S. Cairo the following day engaged in what might be the first mine-sweeping operation ever conducted by the U.S. Navy. Despite their best efforts, the Cairo detonated one of the torpedoes and sank within minutes. 

 

The Rains' Bureau torpedo in an image from Cowan Auctions. The Confederates strung a series of these crude but deadly devices across the Yazoo River in December 1862 to prevent Federal vessels from traveling up river. Lieutenant Morton had spotted them during the reconnaissance of December 11th and while carefully picking their way through the minefield, the ironclad U.S.S. Cairo struck one of these and in eight minutes was resting on the muddy bottom of the Yazoo. The vessel was raised in 1964 and came be seen today at Vicksburg National Battlefield. 

Mississippi Squadron, off the Yazoo River, Mississippi

December 13, 1862

            Since we have been down here, we have been sent up the Yazoo River every two or three days to within two or three miles of a battery on that river 25 miles from the Mississippi. Nothing of note occurred until the 11th instant when we were ordered to proceed up the Yazoo with the light gunboats Marmora and Signal. When within about four miles of the battery, I noticed something like the bottom of a chair floating bottom up, the legs attached together to each other with wires. I was heading directly for it, being in the channel, but as I neared it I thought I would not run over it, so I slacked steam and sheered around it, passing within three feet of it. I called the attention of the Captain to it and at this I was observed in the river above quite a number of floats and other suspicious things which did not belong there. I then stopped the boat and the officers examined with their glasses.

While doing this, there was quite an eruption in the water near the Signal in the rear. This convinced the Captain that these floats were torpedoes; we then rounded down the river. As we passed the chair bottom we met going up and after we had passed some 100 yards, a musket shot was fired into it and one of the most terrific explosions ensued which I have ever witnessed and in fact even more terrible than I would have thought possible. It shocked the boat very much, throwing the water out of the water tank and rushed the water up so high that it ran into the boat’s hold at the tiller holes at the head of the rudder stalk, breaking all the glass on the boat very nearly and throwing a sheet of flames nearly as high as the hurricane roof of the boat and throwing a conical shot high into the air. The boat, however, was not hurt.

U.S.S. Cairo

We safely returned to the fleet at the mouth of the river and the Captain reported to Commodore Walke. On the morning of the 12th, the ironclad steamers Cairo and Pittsburgh and the light boats Marmora and Signal were ordered to proceed up the Yazoo, draw up these torpedoes, and destroy them. The Cairo being the flagship in this expedition, I was ordered on board of her. We proceeded without opposition up the Yazoo until we reached the hornet’s nest of torpedoes. After shelling the woods in the vicinity to prevent the small boats being fired on from shore, the boat was manned, sent out and took up two torpedoes. Previous to this the captain of the Cairo had asked me to come out of the pilothouse and show him what I could and what I had learned of them the day previous.

After taking up three of them we all looked carefully forward but could see nothing for some 200 yards. The Captain ordered the Marmora to proceed up the left-hand shore carefully while we went up the right. We were going slowly, watching the water closely, but could see no float or anything indicating a torpedo when all at once, I felt a severe shock, terrible indeed. I was standing directly over the port bow when it exploded and was thrown upon a pile of iron some six or eight feet distant and of some height. The blow stunned me for a few moments but didn’t seriously wound me though I was badly bruised. The engineer was badly hurt and two or three sailors also. This amounts to almost all the personal injuries. The boat sank in eight minutes after the explosion at 11;25 in the morning in 25 feet of water; nothing was saved from her. Thus, we lost one of the finest and best boats of our fleet. After this there were 11 of the torpedoes taken out of the river without further injury.

A view of the bow of what remains of the U.S.S. Cairo. Lieutenant Morton would have been in the pilothouse guiding the ship along the Yazoo when she struck the mine. Despite the ferocity of the blast, the Cairo suffered no casualties. 

Source:

Letter from Lieutenant John F. Morton, Mississippi Squadron, Portsmouth Times (Ohio), December 27, 1862, pg. 2


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