On a chilly February 14, 1862, Valentine’s Day, at the Mystic, Connecticut, shipyard of Maxson, Fish & Co., a sleek-looking ironclad splashed into the water. USS Galena’s launch was eagerly anticipated in that tight-knit shipping community, for it was reputed to be on the cutting edge of warship technology. The local paper, the Mystic Pioneer, proclaimed Galena’s iron plating would be “absolutely impregnable to ordinary projectiles.” Newspapers often get it wrong, however, and the first time Galena met up with the business end of Rebel cannons, those “ordinary projectiles” instead raised havoc with the vessel.
Galena was a product of the ironclad arms race between the Union and the Confederacy that began in the late summer of 1861, when rumors about the construction in Norfolk, Va., of an iron-plated menace known as Virginia began to percolate north. Federal Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles knew such a revolutionary ship could threaten and possibly break the Union blockade of Southern ports, and he targeted opportunistic entrepreneurs with advertisements in Northern newspapers seeking blueprints for iron-plated vessels. To review those plans, Welles instituted an Ironclad Board of veteran seamen Joseph Smith, Hiram Paulding and Charles Henry Davis.
The Ironclad Board had a $1.5 million budget to award to builders and a month in which to award it. The trio reviewed 17 proposed designs. Some were radical, and some were ludicrous. One designer proposed cladding his vessel in rubber, intended to deflect enemy shells. Fortunately for the reputation of the U.S. Navy, that design was rejected.
In the end the board awarded three contracts in September 1861. One went to John Ericsson and his revolutionary Monitor. One board member rejected Ericsson’s plan, but the other two backed it mostly because he assured the board that the ship could be built in less than 100 days for only $275,000.
The other two accepted designs were more typical and reflected the Ironclad Board’s conservative thinking that even ironclads should have sails to supplement their steam engines. New Ironsides was a 4,100-ton, 20-gun behemoth, and then there was Galena, the brainchild of Samuel Pook, a 20-year-old Bostonian soon to be famous for creating the “Pook’s Turtles” ironclads that caused havoc for the Confederates on the Mississippi River in 1862-63.
At first glance, Galena was conventional enough: a 210-foot-long wooden-hulled steam frigate with a 36-foot beam and a sail rig that could muster speeds up to 8 knots. It carried four 9-inch smoothbore Dahlgrens and two rifled 100-pounder Parrotts arranged broadside. The sides of the ship sloped in from the water in what was known as a “tumblehome” design.
But what was truly unique was Pook’s choice of armor: rows of interlocking iron sheets placed in a rail-and-plate arrangement that supposedly made it impenetrable against solid shot up to 6 inches thick. Perhaps due to cost, Pook originally planned to sheathe Galena’s 18-inch-thick hull with only 21⁄2 inches of armor atop 11⁄2 inches of rubber. Once construction began, however, the rubber was replaced by another five-eighths inch of iron, still thinner than called for in any other early ironclad design.
The Ironclad Board was modestly optimistic that Galena would be successful, but others were not. Many officers thought the design of its hull and armor were faulty and vulnerable to shot. Captain Louis M. Goldsborough, commander of the Union’s North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, called it a “most miserable contrivance.” Captain John Rodgers, Galena’s first commanding officer, wrote: “I was convinced as soon as I came on board that she would be riddled under fire, but the public thought differently, and I resolved to give the matter a fair trial.” And while Monitor gained fame for its duel with Virginia and New Ironsides had a successful career, Galena’s maiden battle was a disaster.
Drewry’s Bluff was a fortified point seven miles below Richmond at a sharp bend in the James River—a thorn in the Union side. Had it not been for that strongpoint, Federal ships could have steamed much closer to Richmond, a fact not lost on the Union high command in the spring of 1862, when Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan was trying to attack the Rebel capital from the east with his Army of the Potomac.
As McClellan closed in on Richmond in mid-May, Commander Rodgers added Galena to his makeshift James River fleet. Rodgers’ force also featured the battle-scarred Monitor as well as Naugatuck—an aging, partially armored gunboat loaned to the Navy by the Revenue Cutter Service. The gunboat Aroostook and the side-wheeler Port Royal followed in support. No longer worried about the menacing Virginia—which its crew had reluctantly scuttled near Hampton Roads on May 11—Rodgers decided to make a dash for Richmond.
One hundred feet above the river at Drewry’s Bluff, behind a series of reinforced embankments known as Fort Darling, a small, patched-together Rebel force of Virginia’s crew, infantrymen and artillerymen under Commander Ebenezer Farrand waited with a 10-inch Columbiad and an assortment of 8-inch smoothbores and rifles for whatever Yankee ships might come their way. The Rebels had also blocked the narrow waterway with a combination of junks, stone, “spiles and chains”—even the sunken gunboat Jamestown—and backed it with the gunboat Patrick Henry.
About 7:45 a.m. on May 15, Galena, at the head of the fleet, opened fire on the heights. The battle quickly devolved into a shootout between Farrand’s and Rodgers’ gun crews. Monitor, unable to raise its guns to fire at the Rebel batteries on the bluff, soon retreated downriver, where Rodgers’ gunboats were dueling with pesky sharpshooters firing from the riverbank. Naugatuck’s single 100-pounder Parrott gun burst, meanwhile, rendering that vessel useless.
For three hours Galena sat anchored some 600 yards off Drewry’s Bluff, firing with little apparent effect. Farrand’s 10-inch Columbiad had burst early in the fight, but his men continued to blast away with their remaining cannons. At least 43 shots struck their mark, with 13 penetrating Galena’s suspect armor. Even the pesky Patrick Henry got in a lick, puncturing the hapless Galena’s lower hull with a shot late in the contest.
By 11:05 a.m., Galena’s ammunition was virtually gone, and Rodgers withdrew. By that time 13 crewmen were dead, their blood and body parts mixed with shattered timbers in what was described as “a perfect slaughter house.”
Criticism of Galena and its design began immediately, initiated by a disgusted Rodgers: “We demonstrated that she is not shot-proof; balls came through, and many men were killed with fragments of her own iron.” The new ironclad’s “failure” looked especially bad in the wake of Monitor’s recent celebrated performance against Virginia, and following the publication of official reports on newspapers’ front pages. While Galena was riddled, Monitor commander Lieutenant William N. Jeffers wrote, his beloved “cheese-box…retained her superior strength and invulnerability. The balls glanced harmless from her tower of strength and fell into the placid waters of the river.” Jeffers later declared that both he and Rodgers were convinced before the engagement “that the armor of the Galena was readily penetrable by shot from the class of guns we were likely to find on the battery” and that the assault on Fort Darling was “nothing further than a reconnaissance in force and a trial of the Galena ’s armor.” [italics original]
Not only had Galena and the James River fleet failed to get past Drewry’s Bluff, but the Army of the Potomac soon came up short, too, in its bid to conquer Richmond, retreating ingloriously down the peninsula a few weeks later.
Despite numerous puncture holes, Galena remained on the James River through September, lending its guns in support of McClellan’s retreating army during the Seven Days’ Campaign in June and July. After wintering in Hampton Roads, Galena was finally sent north to Philadelphia for repairs. There, it was not only patched up but also stripped of its beat-up iron coat. Whatever its future, Galena would spend the rest of its days as just another wooden gunboat.
Galena soon returned to service as a simple wooden-walled warship, and with none if its former fanfare. In May 1864, it steamed south for duty with the West Gulf Blockading Squadron, in time to join Admiral David Farragut’s long-delayed attempt to capture Mobile, Ala., the Confederacy’s most valuable remaining port city and a center of blockade running activity.
For the run past bristling Forts Morgan and Gaines and into Mobile Bay, Farragut gathered a fleet of 18 ships—including four of the latest ironclads, the powerful Tecumseh and Manhattan and their massive 15-inch Dahlgrens, and Winnebago and Chickasaw, each carrying four 11-inch Dahlgrens. For the Union, success there represented a nail in the Confederate coffin. For Galena—now captained by Lt. Cmdr. Clark H. Wells—the expedition offered a chance at redemption.
Just after dawn on August 5, 1864, Farragut’s ironclads led the advance toward Fort Morgan and Rear Adm. Franklin Buchanan’s small defending fleet—the fearsome ironclad Tennessee and the gunboats Gaines, Morgan and Selma. Trailing closely behind, just to port, were his seven largest wooden warships, each with a smaller gunboat lashed to its port side. Two years after leading a daring charge up the James River on the Confederate capital, Galena’s fate was literally tied to another ship, the Oneida.
Almost immediately, Farragut’s fleet ran into trouble. Led by Brooklyn, his leading wooden vessels, including his flagship Hartford, began slipping beyond the protective screen of Federal ironclads. Fearful of that, lest they become quick fodder for the waiting Tennessee despite the fact all the Union wooden ships had chains hung over their sides for extra armor, a desperate Commander Tunis A.M. Craven ordered Tecumseh, still in the lead, to cut through the minefield to intercept the iron-coated ram. But his gamble failed: At 7:30 a.m., Tecumseh struck a mine and sank with Craven and 92 others within just a few minutes.
Now Brooklyn’s captain, hesitant to proceed in the wake of Tecumseh’s demise, stalled—bottling up the column under the deadly rain of lead issuing from Fort Morgan’s 45 guns. Weighing the risks of remaining in place rather than testing the torpedo field, Farragut turned to his pilot and said, “I will take the lead.” The battle turned on the admiral’s decision. Fortunate to avoid any live mines, Hartford charged ahead into Mobile Bay. Continuing to exchange fire with the fort, Brooklyn and the others followed.
Bringing up the rear of the column, Commander J.R.M. Mullany’s Oneida came under galling fire. One shot damaged its steering gear, while others started fires on its decks. It was nearly out of the fort’s range when, at 7:50 a.m., a 7-inch rifle shell passed through the chain armor and the ship’s side and exploded in the starboard boiler at the water line. Nearly all of the firemen and coal heavers below decks were scalded to death or disabled by the escaping steam. By 8:37, Oneida had lost the use of at least two of its guns when a shot from Tennessee knocked out a third and severely wounded Mullany. “The command of the ship now devolved upon me,” Lieutenant Charles L. Huntington wrote, “and the management of the two vessels upon Lieutenant-Commander Wells, of Galena.”
Fortunately for both men, heavy fire from Farragut’s ironclads drove Tennessee off and saved their vessels from further mauling. And while Galena’s assistant surgeon George P. Wright lent his skills to Oneida’s busy medical staff, Wells used Galena’s 800-hp engine to keep the much heavier Oneida moving speedily to deeper and safer waters. “The safety of the ship after the explosion depended upon the Galena,” Huntington wrote. “That we are here quietly at anchor attests how nobly…Wells stood by us.”
The fight for Mobile Bay was soon over. With Oneida and Galena out, the rest of Farragut’s fleet blasted Selma and Gaines out of action (Morgan escaped up the bay), then turned on the still-prowling Tennessee. Ramming it failed, but the combined point-blank fire of Farragut’s heavy ironclads eventually put Tennessee out of action. A gravely wounded Buchanan surrendered at 10 a.m.
Farragut next put his battle-torn fleet to work forcing the surrenders of the three defending Confederate forts. Powell, well east of Gaines, fell that night; Gaines surrendered three days later; but Fort Morgan’s garrison held out in defiance until Galena, now operating free of the damaged Oneida, and the rest of the fleet pounded it into submission on August 23.
Although its place on Oneida’s port side in the initial attack on August 5 had meant that Galena was partially shielded from Fort Morgan’s guns, Wells’ gunboat was raked by grape and struck repeatedly by 10-inch shot, but its crew suffered only three casualties, with only one death.
USS Galena finished out its days quietly. After three months of duty in the East Gulf and four months of repairs, it returned to river duty in the Eastern theater, where its career had begun so ignobly. In 1872, a decade after its celebrated birth in Mystic, the ironclad-turned-gunboat was broken up at the Norfolk Navy Yard.
Louis Goldsborough had called Galena “a poor stick for an iron clad,” and it would be hard to argue otherwise. The failure of Samuel Pook’s skimpy armor arrangement doomed Galena to become the forgotten ironclad—the only one of the Union’s famed first three to fail. Given the opportunity to fight “in her own skin” alongside other anonymous wooden gunboats, however, the vessel at least lived up to the faith placed in it back in Mystic.
This article was written by Eric Ethier and originally published in the February 2008 issue of Civil War Times Magazine. For more great articles, subscribe to Civil War Times magazine today!