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NP: July 9, 1864 Irish-American (New York, NY): The USS Onondaga in the Action at Howlett’s Bluff, June 21, 1864


Va., June 22d, 1864.

To the Editors of the Irish-American:

33961v: Double turretted i.e. turreted monitor "Onondaga", James River, Va.

“Garryowen,” a Fireman on the powerful double turreted monitor Onondaga, gives an account of her first battle. (Library of Congress)

I avail myself of the earliest opportunity to inform the numerous readers of your journal of our recent actual engagement with the “Rebels.” The dull monotony which prevailed in this part of the [James] river2 for the past few weeks was broken yesterday [June 21, 1864], by the whizzing of balls and shells around us.3 In order to allay the anxiety of those fond ones who are represented on board here by husbands, brothers, and sons. I will state that “nobody is hurt,” notwithstanding a vigorous fire was kept up for about six hours.4 Tuesday, the 21st of June [1864], will be long remembered by the crew of the “Onondago,” [sic, Onondaga] as the day she, for the first time encountered the enemy.  Well and nobly she acted her part, and sustained the reputation she so richly deserves as being “monarch of all she surveys.” We were aware for some time that the rebels intended to build a battery some two miles above us on the bend of the river, and we occasionally sent a few shells daily in that direction, not having water enough in the river to ascend higher;—but notwithstanding our efforts to battle them, they succeeded in firmly establishing themselves in the place designated.5 In order more clearly to illustrate our position, I might say that the course of the river in in this locality resembles that of a “horse shoe”—with our four monitors, viz, Onondago [sic, Onondaga], Tecumseh, Canonicus, and Saugus, at the left hand heel, the rebel battery [Battery Dantzler] at the toe, and the rebel iron clads [CSS Virginia II, CSS Richmond, and CSS Fredericksburg] at the right hand heel, from whence they can send us their respects across the peninsula thus formed, in the shape of shell and shot, which, however, is at random, as we are not visible to them, nor they to us6: but their movements in the battery we can easily discern with the aid of a glass. At noon, on the day mentioned, the Tecumseh opened fire on the battery, which, to our surprise and consternation, elicited a reply from that quarter in the shape of a shell going whiz-zr-zr-zr over our heads; while eating dinner on deck under the awning, as is our wont this fine warm weather. Such a gathering up of tinpots, pans, mess-kettles, &c., &c., was never before seen, and the jokes and larks which usually prevail on such assemblages, were quickly dispensed with, and more sedate and solemn countenances substituted.  A general rush was made for the hatchway; every man feeling that he had a duty to perform, and in less time than it takes to mention it, all hands were at “quarters.” We kept up a vigorous fire alternately from both our “turrets,” accompanied by the other “monitors,” until night. The rebels, on the other hand, were no way sparing in their efforts to cripple us, as their shot and shell flew around, about, above, and below us; but failed to hit us at any time, except a small splinter of a shell which scratched our deck a little, doing no damage whatever.7

What casualties occurred among the “Rebels,” I cannot say; be we observed that we dismounted one of their guns, and if not some of themselves, it is, indeed, marvellous. Today [June 22, 1864] everything is quiet, and only that the President has come to visit us, everything would wear its usual aspect;–but, true enough, “Uncle Abraham” [President Abraham Lincoln] is in our midst, on a tour of inspection, I presume; he came on board here, just as I was writing, accompanied by his young son, Lieut. Gen. [Ulysses S.] Grant, Major-Gen. [Benjamin F.] Butler, and a host of gold laced gents of lesser note; they remained about twenty minutes when they again departed. There were no demonstrations made, on our part, to receive them, and they came and went as other less distinguished visitors do.

Yours very truly,


SOPO Editor’s Note: This article was transcribed by Gary Schoen.

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A newspaper article from the July 9, 1864 New York Irish-American describing the Action at Howlett's Bluff, June 21, 1864


  1. SOPO editor’s Note: The Onondaga was a double-turreted monitor, the most powerful vessel in either Navy on the James River on June 21, 1864. Click here for Onondaga’s ship page for details on the ship and a photo.
  2. SOPO Editor’s Note: See this map for details of the Trent’s Reach area, which had become a “no man’s land” of sorts between the Union and Confederate navies.
  3. SOPO Editor’s Note: “Garryowen” is about to describe the June 21, 1864 Action at Howlett’s Bluff.  Newly created and unmasked Battery Dantzler near the Howlett House on the western end of Trent’s Reach opened fire on the Union ironclads, including the Onondaga, stationed on the eastern end of the reach. They were 2,000+ yards apart during the entirety of the engagement.  The Onondaga was barely hit and suffered no damage, though Battery Dantzler saw one rifle dismounted, and the single turreted monitor USS Saugus suffered minor damage to her deck and turret, which is described in great detail in the official report of that ship. Click here to see an original map I created of this small fight.
  4. SOPO Editor’s Note: See yesterday’s post for the official report of the Onondaga’s part in this affair.
  5. SOPO Editor’s Note: This was Confederate Battery Dantzler, constructed just northwest of the Howlett House at the western end of Trent’s Reach.  It was meant to control the entire reach. Four guns were active on June 21, 1864, with one being dismounted by the fire of USS Tecumseh.
  6. SOPO Editor’s Note: Farrar’s Island formed a barrier to visibility in the area.  Vessels very near to each other as the crow flies but on opposite stretches could not see the hulls of their enemies.  It was an interesting tactical situation to be sure.
  7. SOPO Editor’s Note: In addition to Battery Dantzler, the Confederates utilized their entire James River Squadron of ironclad rams and wooden gunboats to fire on the Union monitors from the north, creating a cross fire.  However, Union reports, both official and unofficial, mention the fire of the Confederates to have been quite wild. The Union monitors ignored the Rebel squadron and concentrated their fire on Battery Dantzler, though Union double ender Agawam appears to have fired at them with her aft guns.
  8. Damian Shiels at Irish American Civil War has positively identified “Garryowen” as Fireman Michael J. Callinan.
  9. “The Onondago in Action.” The Irish-American (New York, NY). July 9, 1864, p. 1 col. 7
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