USS Galena: Heroism on Board an Ironclad

By Daryl Watson

Nearly everyone has heard of the Civil War ironclad warships. They changed forever the history of naval warfare, especially the Union USS Monitor. But who has heard of the Monitor’s sister ship the Galena, launched from the Maxson Fish & Co. shipyard at West Mystic, Connecticut on February 14, 1862? It was one of three new ironclads commissioned by the U.S. government in 1861 to meet the threat of the Confederate’s new CSS Virginia (formerly the USS Merrimac). Ironclad technology was still in its infancy and not everyone was convinced it would work.

But things changed when the Confederates in 1861 stormed the Gosport Navy Yard across the river from Norfolk, Virginia. They snatched one of the U.S. Navy’s latest steam frigates, the USS Merrimac. In a bold and daring move their Secretary of Navy, Stephan Mallory, authorized the conversion of the ship into an ironclad.Suddenly the Confederates would have a ship that could sink anything in the Union Navy. Gideon Welles, the Union Secretary of Navy, immediately recognized the danger. He knew the Union had to get their own ironclads and there was no time to spare. He lobbied hard and on July 19, 1861 a bill was introduced for ironclad ship construction. Convinced of the need, President Lincoln signed the bill into law only two weeks later.

The bill set up an “Ironclad Board,” made up of shipbuilding experts. Because no one could agree on the best design, board members approved three designs, all different. John Ericsson, designer of the Navy’s first steam-powered vessel in 1844, would oversee construction of the Monitor in New York. Merrick & Sons would build the New Ironsides in Philadelphia, and railroad magnate Cornelius Bushnell would supervise building of the Galena in Mystic, Connecticut.

Bushnell thought the 210 foot boat should be named the Retribution, but he was overruled. The military successes of a young new general in the West by the name of U.S. Grant led to the naming of the boat after his hometown, Galena, Illinois.

The Galena was plated with multiple layers of one-half inch thick iron, but of the three ironclads it was the most lightly armored. It retained, however, much of the maneuverability and quickness of a wooden hulled vessel. Action came almost immediately.

On May 8, 1862 the Galena headed up the James River of Virginia with two other gunboats in an effort to reach Richmond and compel its surrender. On board was a detachment of 12 Marines.

USS Galena and U.S. Marines Join Forces
The U.S. Marine Corps consisted of less than 2,000 officers and enlisted men in 1861. That number was further reduced when many chose to follow the Confederacy. Corporal John F. Mackie, a native of New York City, stayed with the Union. A few days before, he had reported for duty aboard the newly commissioned USS Galena. He was joined by 11 other loyal Marines.

As the Union gunboats moved up the James the Confederate ironclad CSS Virginia a few days before. The latter was going to be used to defend Richmond but her draft was too deep for the journey. To keep her from falling into Union hands, she was set ablaze, but only after her crew removed her guns. Both crew and guns were then sent up the river to Drewry’s Bluff.

Drewry’s Bluff was a strategic point overlooking the James River. It was a perfect place to stop the Union flotilla advancing up the river. The fate of Richmond depended on it.

The commander of the Galena hoped to engage the Confederate battery while the rest of the flotilla slipped by. The heavily clad Monitor was unable to elevate her guns high enough to help. As a result, the Galena found herself in a crippling position as cannon fire soon rained down upon her deck.

“We turned our attention to the Galena,” reported Confederate Commander Ebenezer Farrand, “nearly every one of our shots telling upon her iron surface.” The rebel barrage was too much for the lightly armored Galena. Punctured plates were ripped apart and splintered wood flew through the ship.

Adding insult to injury, Confederate Marines were in sniping positions along the shore. “Our sharpshooters did good service, picking off every man who showed himself,” Farrand later wrote.

“Here’s a chance for the Marines!”
On board the Galena, Corporal Mackie and his Marines resolutely returned fire. Suddenly a huge round hit the deck of the Galena, wiping out an entire gun crew. Mackie, nearby, jumped up and shouted, “Come on, boys. Here’s a chance for the Marines.” His stunned men rallied, clearing the decks of dead and wounded.

Amidst a hail of Confederate fire, Mackie and his Marines began loading and firing the remaining Parrott rifle. Though they feverishly kept firing, Mackie saw the ship turning into a complete wreck!”

The Galena was finally forced to break off the engagement, limping back downstream to join the retreating Union flotilla. In three hours of conflict she lost 12 men dead and 11 wounded. The ship had taken at least 28 direct hits from rebel artillery. Many of the smoldering projectiles were still lodged in the hull and deck.

Amazingly, the Galena was repaired, but in February of 1864 the iron plating was removed and she was re-commissioned as a wood-hulled ship. She served valiantly as part of Admiral David Farragut’s fleet off Mobile, Alabama. She continued to serve after the War, finally being decommissioned in 1869.

Corporal John Mackie, meanwhile, became the first Marine ever to be awarded the newly created Congressional Medal of Honor. It was for his extraordinary gallantry aboard the USS Galena, where both men and machine refused to give up. Surely Grant and the citizens of Galena would have been proud.