- VICKSBURG, Miss. A 26-year-old Los Angeles man faces a federal prison term and a stiff fine for breaking off a wooden piece of the hull of the salvaged U.S.S. Cairo, a Civil War ironclad, for a souvenir.
Charles Morfin allegedly climbed over a security barrier at the Vicksburg National Military Park and took a piece of original white oak from the hull of the vessel, according to Greg Zeman, the Chief of Operations at Vicksburg.
"The damage he did cannot be undone," Zeman said. "I've said this before, but any time you have an incident like this, it's like tearing a page out of a history book. This is a cultural resource and it can't be replaced. This piece of history is gone and no one will again be able to view that piece in its original state again."
Zeman continued, "We have about a million visitors here annually. If every one of them took a piece of the boat, there wouldn't be any boat left. It's not a renewable resource like berries or acorns."
He said the 8-inch piece was recovered, but he had doubts as to whether it could be reattached given the fragile state of the vessel which was sunk in 1862 and spent more than 100 years 36 feet below the surface of the Yazoo River, north of Vicksburg.
The Cairo was the first ship in history to be sunk by an electrically detonated torpedo. Its recovered remains are on a permanent outside display at the military park.
Morfin was indicted on a felony charge of damage to an archeological resource by a federal grand jury in early August. Zeman said no court date was set for the case to be heard and no plea has been entered.
If convicted of the charge Morfin faces a penalty of up to two years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.
According to Zeman, Morfin traveled to the Vicksburg park with two companions and told them he was planning to take a piece of the Cairo before leaving. When he and the two people he was traveling with started to leave the park, Morfin apparently showed off the piece, causing the driver of the car to turn around and report him to park rangers, according to Zeman.
Rangers had already been alerted to the incident and were responding to investigate when Morfin was turned over to the authorities.
Park visitors saw Morfin take the piece and had alerted park employees. A seasonal park interpreter, who was in period clothing performing naval living history activities on the gunboat, used his Civil War-style telescope to obtain the make and license number of the vehicle as it left the lot.
"The car would have been stopped and all three occupants would have been in trouble," Zeman said, noting that park rangers were on the scene within two minutes of the incident and were preparing to go after the car.
During the investigation, rangers identified several discrepancies in Morfins explanation of what had happened, which he claimed was just an accident. According to Zeman, a videotape of the incident provides irrefutable evidence about what took place.
Morfin was taken into custody and held over night before appearing the next day before a federal magistrate in Jackson who set bail at $2,000. After posting the necessary assurances, Morfin was released.
Zeman said this is the first time that the park service is aware of where a piece of the gunboat was broken off. He said there is no move to increase security at the display in the wake of the incident.
There's a balance that must be struck between the need to preserve the ironclad and allowing the public to view it, Zeman said.
Video cameras, security fencing and a protective canopy over the vessel affords some protection, Zeman said. Addi-tional personnel to guard the Cairo might be helpful, but unlikely given the budget constraints, not only at Vicksburg, but also at virtually all national park sites.
A full, climate-controlled building would help preserve and protect the boat, but be cost prohibitive, given its size, Zeman said. A replacement canopy, which is currently in the works, will cost about $3 million and a study, done 15 years ago, indicates that it would have cost $8 million to fully enclose the Cairo at that time.
"Who knows what it would cost today," Zeman said, noting that the energy cost for climate-control would also be exorbitant.
"I think all of the employees would like to put it in a bottle if we could," he said.
The U.S.S. Cairo was one of seven ironclad gunboats named in honor of towns along the upper Mississippi and Ohio rivers. Each had 13 cannon. The Cairo was constructed at Mound City, Ill., and commissioned in 1862.
It saw only limited action in the engagement at Plum Point in May and in the Battle of Memphis in June.
On Dec. 12, 1862, it was part of a small flotilla that set out to destroy Confederate batteries and clear the channel of underwater mines.
The flotilla came under fire and as the gunboat turned toward shore and the guns were readied, two explosions rocked the boat tearing a hole in its side. It sank in 12 minutes with no loss of life.
It remained on the bottom of the Yazoo River and forgotten over the years. In 1956 Edwin C. Bearss, then historian at Vicksburg National Military Park, discovered the site of the Cairo using contemporary documents and maps.
In 1960, with the recovery of the pilothouse, an 8-inch smoothbore cannon, its white oak carriage and other artifacts well-preserved by the Yazoo mud, interest in salvaging the vessel was running high.
With financial support from the State of Mississippi, the Warren County Board of Supervisors and funds raised locally, efforts to salvage the gunboat began in earnest.
In October 1964, 3-inch cables being used to lift the Cairo cut deeply into its wooden hull and a decision to was made to cut the vessel into three sections with the plan to save as much of it as possible. By the end of December, the remains were put on barges and taken to Vicksburg. In 1965, they were towed to Ingalls Ship in Pascagula, Miss., were the preservation efforts were started.
A 1972 act of Congress authorized the National Park Service to accept title to the Cairo and restore it for display at Vicksburg National Military Park.
In June 1977, it was transported to the park and partially reconstructed on a concrete foundation where it remains today. Recovered artifacts, including weapons, munitions, naval stores and personal gear of the sailors who served on board can be seen at the park and in the U.S.S. Cairo Museum.