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Experience: Life on an Ironclad

By Noah Andre Trudeau
9/7/2017 • MHQ Magazine

A Union sailor’s letters describe his posting at Richmond’s naval front and the Confederacy’s final days.

The story of the common soldier in the American Civil War is well known. Less familiar are narratives of the common sailor’s life below deck. One remarkable collection hiding in plain sight is a series of two dozen letters penned by a sailor aboard the USS Onondaga and published in the Irish-American, a weekly New York newspaper, from May 1864 to war’s end.

The sailor, a patriotic American and ardent Irish nationalist, wrote under a nom de plume, a common practice of the time. As “Garryowen,” he shared with readers his wartime experiences as well as an insider’s view of the Union campaign that brought Richmond, and ultimately the Confederacy, to its knees.

Garryowen was among the raw recruits joining the Onondaga, a double-turreted warship, in the spring of 1864. Launched the year before and designed for river operations, it was one of the first monitors—ships modeled after the USS Monitor and occasionally built with an entirely iron hull and armor-plated gun turrets and deck.

Soon after Garryowen came aboard, the Onondaga was posted to Virginia’s James River to support Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant’s land operations. Stymied in June at Cold Harbor northeast of Richmond, Grant had swung south of the Confederate capital and by midsummer was threatening both Richmond and Petersburg from a James River base at City Point (present-day Hopewell).

The Federals controlled the river downstream all the way to the Atlantic port of Hampton Roads, and cargo ships steamed up and down in relative safety. City Point became the Union army’s principal supply depot for all its regional operations.

The Onondaga’s station was 17 miles upstream from City Point, near Farrar’s Island and just south of a channel known as Trent’s Reach. This became the navy’s front line. Confederate warships patrolled the river near Richmond, north of Trent’s Reach. To keep them bottled up—and far away from the critical City Point—the Federals created a line of obstacles in the channel, scuttling more than a dozen ships and placing mines.

The Onondaga and other Union ships were stationed just behind this barrier to further discourage a Rebel breakout. Nearby was a 160-foot trestle observation tower known as the Crow’s Nest— a frequent target of Confederate artillery. Garryowen noted:

It commands a view of Richmond and the surrounding country; and, consequently, of great annoyance to the enemy, who spare no efforts to demolish it; their balls fly in every direction about it, but so far have failed to hit it, and during this terrible target shooting, the “look outs,” on duty on top of it, remain, with signal flag in hand, as unconcerned as the boy on the tree stealing apples, when the old man pelted him with tufts of grass. As our anchorage is immediately under this tower, you may guess we are kept on the qui vivre [sic]; and, though it may appear strange, it is nevertheless true, that this cannonading—though kept up vigorously— scarcely receives from us a passing notice, now that we are so accustomed to it. It was not so in the beginning, when we would hear a report of a gun and it would attract our attention, and looks in all direction would be given to see where it came from; but, being metamorphosed into “old salts,” we now keep on the even tenor of our way, merely exclaiming, as the balls go whizzing by us, “Go in, lemons.”

When not standing watch or drilling, the Onondaga’s crew had a front-row seat to one of the major engineering efforts of the Richmond-Petersburg campaign: the digging of the Dutch Gap Canal across a thin neck of land connecting Farrar’s Island to the James River’s north bank. U.S. engineers hoped the new channel would allow Federal ships to sail north toward Richmond while bypassing a five-mile section of the river that looped west around Farrar’s Island— a stretch lined with Rebel cannons. Work began in August 1864 and continued to December, the diggers (many of them African American) under constant harassment from Confederate artillery.

Garryowen closely followed the project’s progress and chronicled its disappointing finale in January 1865:

The only event of importance that transpired here this week is the blowing out, or rather the blowing up of the remaining end of the canal. This long-looked-for event failed in accomplishing the object for which it was designed… and nothing remains of the “great Dutch Gap canal” but a ditch with a stream of water running through it, not sufficient to float a skiff; and instead of the recent flood clearing it, it only helped to fill it in. So your readers may conclude to hear no more of the canal in connection with this war.

Other running topics in Garryowen’s letters included Rebel deserters, the presidential election (Garryowen backed General George McClellan against President Lincoln), and blow-by-blow descriptions of the sailors’ diversions during slack periods. Just as soldiers in nearby encampments enjoyed their horse races, the sailors of the James River flotilla put their auxiliary craft to uses not contemplated in standing orders. A particularly exciting mid-October contest pitted the Onondaga’s “1st Whale Boat” against its “Captain’s Gig.” The latter led most of the way, but the former sprinted first across the finish line by adroitly cutting inside on a final turn:

The greatest excitement and enthusiasm was manifested on the occasion; and as the crew of the winning boat, flushed with victory, tossed their oars, the captain ordered three cheers for the coxswain and crew of the “1st Whale Boat,” which were responded to with a will, and such cheers only as a jolly set of man-of-war men can give. They were taken up and re-echoed by a large crowd of enthusiastic soldiers from “Crow’s Nest,” who were strewed along the bank, anxious and excited spectators of the sport, and who made the valley of the James River ring with their war-like yells of victory.

Like their army comrades locked in trench warfare, men aboard ironclads on the James found their long stretches of boredom interrupted by brief periods of pure terror. A flurry of action on January 23 and 24, 1865, brought the crew of the Onondaga up short. Significant Union naval operations elsewhere had stripped the James River flotilla of several mighty vessels, and maintenance issues had sidelined every remaining iron warship except for the Onondaga. Winter flooding compromised the Federal barrier in Trent’s Reach, prompting the Rebels to plan a sortie with three of their biggest ironclads and a host of smaller craft. Their object: Penetrate downriver to City Point and destroy the supply depot that kept Union men in the field armed and fed. With so many Federal ships out of action or off the river, only a few land batteries and the Onondaga stood in their way.

The Rebel assault force sailed after dark on January 23. Both the Confederate and Union forces fumbled opportunities. The Rebels’ advance stalled, their ships struggling with mechanical breakdowns, groundings, and snags as they threaded through the Trent’s Reach obstructions.

Meanwhile, the Federal squadron commander, based on the Onondaga, ordered the monitor to retire three miles to a wider stretch of the river at Aiken’s Landing, later testifying that he intended to oppose the Rebel force there, where he had more room to maneuver.

From City Point, U.S. Grant fumed at the navy’s move and dispatched a series of blistering messages. Dawn on January 24 found the Rebels still hung up in Trent’s Reach and under heavy fire from Union army forts. Prodded by Grant’s complaints, the Onondaga (accompanied by two wooden gunboats) returned to post, only to find the Confederates already pulling back under the withering fire. It got in a few parting shots and damaged one of the Rebel ironclads, but its absence from the battle’s critical moments irked the navy high command.

Garryowen defended his vessel in two letters, saying engine problems had prompted its withdrawal. Had the warship stayed in Trent’s Reach, it would have been at a huge disadvantage: “We could fight the rams, it is true; but the [Rebel] torpedo boats, like hornets, would swarm around us in the dark”—a nightmare scenario for a crew posted mostly below the waterline with no deck defenses save four big guns. The squadron commander was court-martialed and found guilty, but the navy secretary overturned the verdict on technical grounds.

President Lincoln visited City Point in late March, and while traveling upriver to review the Army of the James he passed the Onondaga. With Richmond threatened and the Confederacy days from its collapse, Garryowen recorded the historical moment: “Our crew were drawn up on the port-side, rigged and equipped with Sharp’s rifles, and on his passing presented arms, which Father Abraham acknowledged and passed on.” In early April the Onondaga was on station when Richmond was evacuated and the Rebels torched their river fleet.

Garryowen was mustered out of service in New York City on April 10, immensely proud of what the Onondaga (his “Gibraltar of the James”) had accomplished. In one of his first letters, he had promised to reveal his identity at war’s end, yet his final missive was still signed “Garryowen.”

 

Contributing editor Noah Andre Trudeau is researching Abraham Lincoln’s time at the front near Petersburg in the spring of 1865.  

Originally published in the Autumn 2012 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.

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