The Onondaga was a two-turret monitor ironclad, among the third generation commissioned by the Union -- which went on to order the world's first three-turret monitor, the USS Roanoke, during the Civil War; the Roanoake, however, was a conversion of an existing wooden ship, while the Onondaga was new construction, all-iron, and a more satisfactory warship in every way. Onondaga was a large armored ship of the first class, packing 8" and 15" artillery, and of robust construction that stood the test of time. Designed by George W. Quintard, she was built at the Continental Iron Works in Greenpoint, NY and commissioned on March 24, 1864. She cost the U.S. government more than $3M, but in the atmosphere of wartime emergency the contract was signed with little fuss. In making this buy the military acquired a formidable blockader and mobile battery, with reliable armor and engines, capable of providing artillery support to Union troops along the James River in the last two years of the war, and the final drive on Richmond.
At this time thre was a small war brewing within the Navy Department over whether to limit monitors to one turret or improve their firepower -- and fighting value should a turret be knocked out -- by giving them more than one turret. Infatuated with the idea of an all-round arc of fire, John Ericsson (left) dogmatically insisted that all monitors be constructed with only one turret. He even took a two-turret design (the Dictator/Puritan class) and recast it as a single-turret model when given the contract. But the War Department was eager to try any variation that might help to win the war. Navy Secretary Gideon Welles overrode the great inventor's protests and ordered a number of twin-turret ships in 1862-3.
Taken longitudinally, Onondaga's design was somewhat symmetrical, with a layout dominated by the two turrets, similar to the Miantonomah class. Between the turrets sprouted the funnel, trunked with several ventilation tubes into a single plump unit. A few separate ventilator cowls and steam pipes erupted through the weather deck forward and amidships. Atop the forward turret sat a cylindrical pilothouse with a conical armored cap. On deck, huge anchor cranes at the bow, boats, and davits all were designed to go away when she was stripped for action. Each turret contained one 15" Dahlgren smoothbore and one 8" Parrot rifle. The ship was named for the Onondaga Nation of upstate New York -- part of the Iroquois Confederation. Like the Choctaw and other warships so named, she sought to derive fierce fighting spirit by invoking the name of a historic indigenous tribe.
Plans and Specifications
Specifications for the Onondaga:
Dimensions: 228' x 52'9" x 12'10" Displacement: 2,551 tons. Armament: (2) 15" Dahlgren SB; (2) 8" 150-pdr Parrot RML in 2 turrets. (Four 9.4" MLR, 2x2, in French service.) Armor: Wrought-iron type. Turrets 11.75", hull 5.5", decks 1", conning tower 11.75". Freeboard: 14". Propulsion: 4 coal-fired rectangular boilers, (2) horizontal return connecting rod engines developing 640 ihp, shafted to twin screw. Maximum speed: 7 kts. Crew: 150.
Profile and deck plan of the Onondaga. Inboard profile
Dimensions: 69.67m x 15.6m x 3.91m Displacement: 2,551 tons. Armament: (2) 381 mm Dahlgren SB; (2) 203 mm 150-pdr Parrot RML in 2 turrets. (Four 24 cm MLR, 2x2, in French service.) Armor: Wrought-iron type. Turrets 30 cm, hull 14 cm, decks 25 mm, conning tower 30 cm. Freeboard: 356 mm. Propulsion: 4 coal-fired rectangular boilers, (2) horizontal return connecting rod engines developing 477 kW, shafted to twin screw. Maximum speed: 13 km/hr. Crew: 150.
James River Service
The Onondaga spent her entire American war career as a river rat on the James. This was a critical sector. When the Onondaga arrived in theater, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant (right) was fighting a brutal scorched-earth campaign against Robert E. Lee's Army of Virginia, gradually closing in on Richmond. His supply depots were 70 miles from the mouth of the James (Hampton Roads), at City Point and the Bermuda Hundred. It was only 15 miles from the City Point base to the Confederate capital at Richmond -- 15 miles of rich farmland, meandering river, and contentious battlefield. To protect his supply depots from the Confederate warships based at Richmond, Gen. Ben Butler erected a strong cordon of obstructions in a stretch of the river known as Trent's Reach, about one-third of the way to Richmond. Fourteen vessels were sunk in the channel; their masts were removed and chained into a boom blocking egress. Large "torpedoes" (marine mines), triggered electrically from a shack on shore, rounded out the Union's defensive preparations. Under ordinary conditions, the river was blocked; but during flood water, a carefully piloted, shallow-draft steamer might break through. Accordingly, powerful batteries were placed on the high bluffs overlooking the Reach to the south.
When she first arrived for duty, the Onondaga was assigned to the section of the river closest to Confederate lines. She served as a unit of the Union's James Flotilla, which numbered half a dozen other monitors with tinclads and numerous supporting vessels. Onondaga remained there her entire wartime hitch; and there it was that she faced her peril. In late 1864, most of her mates in the James Flotilla were called away to assist in the assault on Fort Fisher, leaving the Onondaga and a couple of unarmored gunboats in charge of the long sector leading to Richmond. Her only ironclad support was the 80-foot experimental torpedo boat Spuyten Duyvil, which mounted no guns. As soon as this weakness became known, the Confederate James River Squadron prepared to sortie from its base at Drewry's Bluff, eight miles below Richmond. Commanded by Comm. John K. Mitchell, the Squadron consisted of three formidable casement ironclads -- the 196' Virginia II, the 172' Richmond, and the 188' Fredericksburg -- plus five gunboats and tinclads.
With the coming of high water on January 23, 1865 the Squadron stood down the James to test Onondaga's mettle, and if possible to break through and raid Grant's supply depots downriver. As the Confederates appeared under cover of darkness, the monitor initially withdrew downstream to a stretch of river that afforded better maneuverability and waited for the Confederates to get tangled up in Trent's Reach, as they had back in September 1864; or not, as fate would have it. In the event, the Confederates lost the element of surprise when three of their biggest vessels ran aground on obstacles around midnight on Jan. 23/24. Federal batteries commanding that stretch of river opened up and kept the Rebel ships under hot fire as soon as their presence became apparent. But the Fredericksburg negotiated the obstructed section of river and stood ready to threaten the Federal base downstream. Only the monitor and her diminutive flotilla blocked her advance. At dawn Gen. Grant located the Onondaga four miles downriver from the fighting and summarily ordered her back to confront the Southern ironclads. Observing the proprieties, Grant later telegraphed his apologies to the Navy Secretary.
At 0930 Onondaga and her gunboats descended on the hapless Confederates and blasted them, shooting from just behind a the Union's major line of obstructions in the Reach. A 15" shell from the monitor penetrated the Virginia II, killing 6 and wounding 14. Connecticut gunners on shore zeroed in on the stranded ships, sinking the torpedo boat Scorpion and exploding the tinclad gunboat Drewry as she struggled to free the Richmond. The Fredericksburg, meanwhile, had been ordered back to assist the grounded vessels in the Reach. The remaining Confederate warships were refloated with difficulty by 1130 -- a feat of some courage since they were under fire from Federal warships and batteries the whole time. As soon as they were clear, the Confederates withdrew to the nearest river-bend under Southern control, about half a mile upstream. After spending the night there, sheltering under the guns of Battery Dantzler, the James River Squadron limped back to Drewry's Bluff on the 25th.
So ended the Battle of Trent's Reach. While the main Confederate vessels retired to base without critical damage, their attack had failed to break through past Onondaga or cause her material damage. Though indecisive, on balance the action was more favorable to the Union than not. The Confederate commander was ousted and replaced with newly-returned war hero Raphael Semmes, fresh from the glittering cruise of the Alabama. At any rate, the Confederates never came downriver again; their ironclads were all burnt to prevent capture as the Yanks stormed into Richmond later that spring.
In an ironic footnote, despite the Yankee victory, the Ononodaga's Capt. William A. Parker was court-martialed for retiring in the face of the enemy, at the insistence of Gen. Grant. He was found guilty on March 19, 1865, the reasoning being that with his superior force he could have utterly destroyed all the Confederate ironclads by confronting them at dawn. With victory in the air, Navy Secretary Welles quietly set the conviction aside and Parker was allowed to continue with his career, albeit with a blot on his record. Article As for his ship, she was recalled for decommissioning in June 1865. She went into ordinary at the New York Navy Yard.
Oooh-la-la! Onondaga Images
The Onondaga at Aikens Landing on the James just prior to recall in 1865. Enlarge Library of Congress
A more workaday view of the Onondaga on the James, surrounded by tugs and small craft. Like the image above, this detail is taken from a much larger, needle-sharp glass plate image by Matthew Brady. National Archives
Stern view; crewmen sheltering under the awnings. Below decks, ironclad sailors sweltered in summer's heat. National Archives
The Battle of Trent's Reach
The Richmond leads her squadron on its desperate raid, Jan. 23, 1865. c. 1900 illustration.
Trent's Reach photographed from Battery Dantzler later in 1865. National Archives
Chart of the Trent's Reach action. Art by Larry Neilson, adapted from National Park Service; © 2011 by City Media.
The Fredericksburg peels away from her grounded mates at Trent's Reach. Oil on canvas by Tom Freeman.
Wreck of the gunboat Drewry after the battle. Virginia Dept of Historic Resources
The Confederate ironclad squadron burns at Drewry's Bluff during evacuation of Richmond; from Semmes' memoirs.
An Oceangoing Onondaga
Currier & Ives and many another graphics firm profited from the cult of the invincible ironclad. Above, a beautiful chromolithograph showing the Onondaga breasting the blue-water billows belies the fact that she spent her entire wartime service on a muddy inland river. Enlarge USNHC
Sale to France
A world-class ironclad like the Onondaga might be a fearsome weapon in wartime, but an expensive luxury in time of peace. In 1867, the U.S. Treasury had only begun to pay the bill on the Onondaga although she had been mothballed for almost two years. In lieu of the remaining debt, the Congress worked out a complicated deal, one very advantageous to the ship's builder. In exchange for remuneration of the payments already made, the Navy returned the vessel to G.W. Quintard, who in turn sold it to Napoléon III of France at a considerable markup. In 1868 Onondaga crossed the Atlantic under her own power to join her new outfit. She was to cruise under the French Tricolor for another 30 years and more. The French appreciated the great craftsmanship in the construction of the ship, but lost no time in rearming her with 9.4" rifles, then the standard in the French service.
FS Onondaga at Brest, late 1860s. With her smartly rigged conical awnings, fancy ironwork, and upright-boiler-like funnel, Onondaga resembles a Jules Verne contraption, particularly striking in snazzy black paint. In this scene at the gravel quarry, a barge and a brig are tied up behind our faithful ironclad. Her new 9.4" guns are plain to see, especially in the aft (right-hand) turret. Onondaga retained her American name while serving as a French coast defense vessel. She was struck off the roster in 1903 and broken up around 1904.