Tuesday, September 11, 2007

USS Onondaga

Named after a lake and a county in New York State, the USS Onondaga was a double-turreted monitor that was launched 2 July 1864 by Continental Iron Works, Greenpoint, New York, under subcontract from George W. Quintard. She was commissioned at the New York Navy Yard on 24 March 1864. The Onondaga was 226 feet long, almost 50 feet wide, carried two 15-inch Dahlgren smoothbores and two 8-inch Parrott rifles, and had a crew of 150. The Onondaga left New York on 21 April 1864 and arrived at Hampton Roads, Virginia, two days later. She was attached to the James River Flotilla, which supported General Ulysses S. Grant’s campaign against the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia.

On 24 November 1864, the Onondaga, along with the monitor USS Mahopac, attacked Confederate artillery positions on the James River at Howlett, Virginia, and attacked the same position again on 5 and 6 December. In January 1865, most of the ships in the James River Flotilla were reassigned to Admiral David Dixon Porter’s fleet for the upcoming attack on Fort Fisher, North Carolina. The Onondaga was the only monitor left to guard the Union forces on the James River against Flag Officer John K. Mitchell’s Confederate James River Squadron.

As soon as the bulk of the Union warships left the James River Flotilla in January 1865, the Confederate Navy made its move. The Confederate ironclads Virginia No. 2 and Richmond, the gunboat Drewry and the torpedo boat Scorpion all steamed down the river, heading towards the Onondaga. The Onondaga moved a little downriver so that there was more room for the monitor to maneuver and then she waited for the Confederate ships to come within range. Suddenly, all of the Confederate ships ran aground in a section of the river called “Trent’s Reach” after trying to avoid some obstructions that were in the river itself. Seeing that the enemy warships were temporarily immobilized, the Onondaga, along with some Union artillery that was positioned on shore, began bombarding the Confederate ships. The gunboat Drewry blew up and the torpedo boat Scorpion had to be abandoned. But the two Southern ironclads managed to free themselves from the mud and retreated back up the river.

For the rest of the war the Onondaga supported the Union troops trying to take Richmond. After General Lee was forced to abandon the Confederate capital and Union troops were finally able to capture the city, the Onondaga was relieved of its duties and sent back to New York for decommissioning on 8 June 1865. Then, in an unusual turn of events, the United States government, by an Act of Congress, sold the Onondaga back to her builder George W. Quintard on 7 March 1867. Quintard then resold the monitor to France for service in the French Navy. The French also called her the Onondaga and the only major modification made to the ship was replacing her American cannons with 9.4-inch rifled guns. The Onondaga remained in French service for the next 36 years and was finally scrapped in 1903, making her the longest lived of the larger American monitors built during the Civil War. After serving in two navies for almost 40 years, the Onondaga proved just how tough monitors could be.


Figure 1 (Top): USS Onondaga on the James River, Virginia, in 1864-65. Note the pulling boat at her stern, with oars manned. Photographed by the Matthew Brady organization. Photograph from the Collections of the U.S. National Archives. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 2 (Middle, Top): USS Onondaga on the James River, Virginia, 1864-1865. Note the rowboat in the foreground, manned by Union Soldiers, and the obstructions across the river in the right distance. Photograph taken by Brady & Company. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 3 (Middle, Bottom): “USS Onondaga,” watercolor by Oscar Parkes. Courtesy of Dr. Oscar Parkes, London, England, 1936. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 4 (Bottom): French coast-defense monitor Onondaga, at Brest, France, circa the later 1860s or the 1870s. She was originally the USS Onondaga, commissioned in 1864 and sold to France in 1867. Courtesy of William H. Davis. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on the photograph for larger image.