Editor’s Note: This article was transcribed by Brett Schulte.
U. S. Iron Clad “Onondaga,” Aikens
Landing, James River, Va.,
December 5, 1864.
To the Editors of the Irish-American:
Gentlemen—The heavy firing which I observe is reported in the dailies as being heard in the vicinity of Dutch Gap, on Tuesday last [November 29, 1864], resulted from a spirited engagement we had with the enemy’s battery at “Howlett[t]’s House.” As they seemed to indulge rather freely in their compliments to the canal operatives, we concluded to move up and let them have a dose of our patent 15-inch pills. Having anchored within range, the business of the day commenced about 11 a. m. We opened from both turrets, our firing averaging one shot in two minutes; the “Johnnies” were not behind time either, they giving shot for shot, as their battery mounts seven or eight heavy guns. We were assisted by the one-turreted iron-clad Mahopac, her first engagement; and the three Union shore batteries [almost certainly Parsons, Wilcox, and Spofford] also participated.1 We kept up a vigorous fire for three or four hours, our 150-pound rifle shells exploding right in their midst, which could not help doing severe mischief. Having satisfied ourselves with the morning’s work, and concluding we did harm enough for one day, we dropped down to this anchorage, where we are overhauling and examining our machinery preparatory to the coming campaign.2 We will, however, be back again at our old station before that is made public, and no doubt have another set-too with our pugnacious friends, just for the fun of the thing, as attacking land batteries from an iron clad is only play work, for the enemy’s shells can have no effect on us. It’s the rebel torpedoes and other impassable obstructions in the river that prevents us from bombarding Richmond long before now; but there are measures in progress to overcome these even, which measures, however, will have to be carried out before made public. It may be well to mention that we came out of the engagement without a scratch.
“Aiken’s Landing,” where we now are, is more of a business and war-like place than the “Gap,” [Dutch Gap] though only four or five miles below it. Here is laid a pontoon bridge, for the accommodation of the Army of the James, and at both sides of it a fleet of gunboats, transports, river steamers, coal vessels, canal boats, &c., forming a galaxy of marine architecture resembling somewhat the bay of New York, opposite the Battery. Aiken’s house and out-houses, situated on the bank of the [James] river, and commanding a splendid view of the now historic stream, the scene of so many strifes and battles, is a respectable two-story, square built, brick building, with porch extending the whole front length, and, notwithstanding the ravages of war, is in a high state of preservation, still occupied by its original inhabitants, except the head of the family—and this individual, up to recently, managed to play a neutral game in the controversy now pending, and it remained for a countryman of ours to ascertain the fact that he was a rebel in disguise, or a sham Union man. I had intended at the time to acquaint you with the modus operandi of this transaction, but it then escaped me. We had an “old salt” here named Casey, (Bill Casey, not Corporal Casey,) a half-devil-may-care-sort-of-a-fellow, who was ready and willing for anything, even spiking a gun in the enemy’s possession. Well, this Casey had a dingy boat, not much larger than a wash-tub, in which he prowled about the river, having a roving commission, and if a “reb” was within 5 miles of him, Billy would actually smell him. In this capacity he visited Mr. Aiken’s dwelling, rather piteously, and asked that gent for a drink of milk; he was told there was none on hand. “Sure, sire,” said he, “it’s not the milk I want, only just to find the shortest route to the rebs, as the Yankees call them. I’ve jumped a Yankee gunboat, and am bound for Dixie, and I think you can direct me in the right path.” The bait took, and the unsuspecting Aiken was trapped by Yankee Pat; who, having possessed himself of sufficient evidence to convict his client, returned by a circuitous route to the fleet, and in a short time afterwards Mr. Aiken was a prisoner. I have this from Billy’s own lips, but give it in a condensed form, as I could by no means give the original narrative, with the slang, gestures, and emphasis of the author, in his own peculiar style; but your readers can draw on their own imaginations for that.
On Thursday last [December 1, 1864], a long, low, black, rakish-looking, bark-rigged craft, with smoke stack forward of the main mast, hove in sight. She was the “What is it” for a considerable time, and after a good deal of “guessing” (among us Americans), she turned out to be a French corvette, mounting 4 guns only, with the French Consul on board for Richmond. I noticed a four-horse hack at the landing all the morning, but could not imagine what it was for; but the mystery was soon cleared—for it was to convey the Consul across our lines. But I am told (how true it is, I don’t know,) that the enemy would not receive him. However, the corvette is at anchor here yet; but what is going on in the premises, is all Greek to us outsiders—(I was going to say Americans again).
I believe I have reached the end of my narrative for the past week; and as the Holidays will be near at hand when this makes its appearance, I will wish you and the readers of the great exponent of Irish national principles—the faithful IRISH-AMERICAN—a Merry Christmas, a Happy New Year, and a great many of them, and will also assure you and them, that the “boys” on the “Iron Sentinel” in the James, will give a good account of themselves when the proper time comes, and after finishing up the business here, there are other “spots” on the ocean that will claim our attention; thither shall we go, and make one powerful, irresistible effort to redeem our fettered, native land, burst the chains that bind her hand and foot, and make her what she ought to be—
“Great, glorious, and free;
First flower of the earth and first gem of the sea.”
Yours, always, GARRYOWEN.3
“Garryowen” of the USS Onondaga Series from 1865-65 New York Irish-American:
- NP: December 17, 1864 Irish-American (NY): Monitor Onondaga Engages Battery Dantzler, Nov. 29, 1864
- NP: December 24, 1864 Irish-American (NY): Four Union Ironclads Attack Battery Dantzler, Dec. 5-6
- NP: February 4, 1865 Irish-American (NY): Battle of Trent’s Reach from Deck of USS Onondaga, Jan. 23-24
- NP: July 9, 1864 Irish-American (New York, NY): The USS Onondaga in the Action at Howlett’s Bluff, June 21, 1864
- SOPO Editor’s Note: Garryowen seems to be referring to Battery Spofford, Battery Parsons, and Battery Wilcox, all located along the southern bank of the James in the right rear of Butler’s main line across Bermuda Hundred. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: Author “Garryowen” is describing the November 29, 1864 engagement of the Federal ironclads Onondaga and Mahopac with Battery Dantzler, anchoring the Confederate Howett line across Bermuda Hundred. ↩
- “Our Iron-Clads in the James River.” Irish-American (NY). December 17, 1864, p. 4 col. 1 to 2 ↩