Editor’s Note: This article was transcribed by Brett Schulte.
FIGHT WITH THE REBEL IRON-CLADS ON THE JAMES RIVER.
(From our own Correspondent)
U. S. Iron-Clad “Onondaga,” Dutch
Gap, James River, Va.,
January 24, 1865.
I hasten to announce you that the rebel Rams or Iron-clads, attempted to attack us last night; and, hoping that this will reach you in time for next week’s issue, I will briefly give you the initial particulars, promising you a more detailed account in due time, as this is merely to allay the anxiety of those most concerned, who will, no doubt, be uneasy on reading about us in the daily papers, and I will preface my remarks by saying that on this vessel “nobody is hurt.”1
Last night [January 23, 1865], about eight o’clock, heavy and continuous firing was heard in the direction of “Howlet[t]’s;” and about eleven o’clock we were signaled, “the rams are coming.” We immediately were beat to quarters, and in quick time every man was at his station. We lay in hourly expectation of them till about four o’clock this morning [January 24, 1865], when we concluded to have at them. With this intention we weighed anchor, when our vessel suddenly “sheared,” and grounded on the opposite shore; our port propeller thereby becoming deranged, to what extent as yet we can’t tell, but sufficient to render the port engine at present useless. On account of the unexpected accident we dropped down to the pontoon bridge at Jones’ Landing, there to await them, and at the same time protect the bridge and base of supplies for the Army of the James. At about nine this morning, seeing they were not advancing, our undaunted Captain procured two tugs and had them tow us up, which was accordingly done, we working the starboard engine only; and in this crippled condition faced the rebel foe, and poured our 13-inch solid shot into them thick and heavy, for about two hours, the result of which was that one of them was struck in the magazine and blown up, the other two “turned tail and run,” and left us alone in our glory. The only injury we received was, our little “Dinkey” was cut through and through above the water-mark, our “whaleboat” was sunk, one shot went through the smoke-pipe, another 7-inch Brooks [sic, Brooke] rifle shot made a slight dent in the after turret, started three or four bolts, glanced off and ripped across the port side of the deck, tearing it up some. The escaped rams are now hemmed in between us and Fort Brady (Union), and to-night or to-morrow we expect to put an end to the rebel navy. I have not time to give any particulars as the mail is leaving; but as this is only the beginning of the end, be prepared to hear good news from the “Gibraltar of the James.” More anon.
Yours, in haste, GARRYOWEN.2
“Garryowen” of the USS Onondaga Series from 1864-65 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 is here referring to the Battle of Trent’s Reach, or the Action at Fort Brady, which occurred from January 23-25, 1865. The Confederate James River Squadron under Flag Officer John Mitchell sortied from Chaffin’s Bluff, intent on breaking through the obstructions in the James River at Trent’s Reach and attacking Grant’s supply center and nerve center at City Point. If the Confederates were successful, Grant’s stranglehold on Richmond and Petersburg might be loosened, if only for a little while. Two things worked in their favor. First, the James River had seen several freshets in the recent past, causing the River, and thus the likelihood of the Confederate ships to pass the obstructions, to rise. Second, the second attack on Fort Fisher had stripped the area of most of its ironclads. Only the powerful double-turreted monitor Onondaga, Garryowen’s ship, remained. ↩
- “Fight with the Rebel Iron-clads on the James River.” Irish-American (NY). February 4, 1865, p. 2 col. 3 ↩
This a fascinating account because it confirms obscure details at the same time it conflicts with all other sources, although the facts were intentionally obscured at the time. Logs indicate that ONONDAGA got underway at 0300 and fled from the battle, ripping through the Varina bridge before going aground and disabling her propeller. After she was towed back to fight the Confederates, her captain was court-martialed for his actions and convicted.
There is no doubt about the courage of the ONONDAGA’s. Once allowed to go forward to fight, they arrived when the two ironclads were escaping after about ten hours stuck on the mudflats. As the Confederates departed, ONONDAGA fired 21 times. Many of those were XV-inch solid shot weighing about 440 pounds apiece. RICHMOND got away with minimal damage but ONONDAGA blew a five-foot-square hole in the back of VIRGINIA II and killed one sailor.
If CDR Parker had sailed to the sound of the guns, he would probably be a legend like Cushing – the man who took three Confederate ironclads in one fight. He was convicted but the war was ending and Gideon Welles overturned the conviction on “technical grounds.”
Thanks Taft! I’m glad you found this account interesting! I’ve got quite a few more letters from “Garryowen” to post, and some day I hope to figure out his identity.
For those readers who are not familiar with Mr. Kiser, click his name in the comment above or this link http://www.dhr.virginia.gov/SlideShows/TrentsReach/TrentsReachTitleslide.html to read the best account of Trent’s Reach you’ll find on the web, bar none.