Clearly, a fight lay ahead in late July 1864, and Commander J. R. Madison Mullany keenly desired to take part in it. Commanding the sidewheeler Bienville, one of the West Gulf Blockading Squadron's ships, Mullany offered his services to its commander, Rear Admiral David G. Farragut. If Farragut's ships were to battle their way past the forts standing sentinel to Mobile Bay, he wanted to be there.
Farragut offered the eager volunteer, a 32-year Navy veteran, the monitor Winnebago, but Mullany, reluctant to command a type of vessel with which he had no familiarity, suggested that he exchange ships with Commander Thomas H. Stevens, a friend of long standing. Stevens, who had commanded the Monitor and now had the three-masted screw sloop Oneida, agreed to take the Winnebago. Consequently, Farragut ordered Mullany to the Oneida on 2 August, and Stevens went to the Winnebago.
The Oneida's hull had been designed by famed naval architect John Lenthall and her machinery constructed by the Fulton Iron Works. Laid down at the New York Navy Yard in June 1861, she was launched on 20 November 1861 and commissioned on 28 February 1862. Assigned to the West Gulf Blockading Squadron soon thereafter, the Oneida fought at New Orleans and Vicksburg and blockaded Mobile.
Off Mobile Bay on 3 August, Mullany reported on board his new ship to find the "carpenters and gang at work taking down all immovable [sic] woodwork about the deck" in accordance with Admiral Farragut's orders to strip ship and "prepare for the conflict." He had little time to acquaint himself with his vessel. Not 48 hours later, the new captain summoned his crew to quarters at 0230. The Oneida's Sailors "led out the deck tackle, got fenders and hawsers ready," and then took the Galena alongside at 0330. About 90 minutes later, at the signal from the flagship Hartford, the Oneida, lashed to her smaller consort, got underway.
Beneath a cloudy sky, the screw sloop steamed in the rear of Farragut's column of gray warships. Confederate guns at Fort Morgan opened the battle at 0705, and the Oneida responded ten minutes later with her 30-pounder Parrott rifle. At 0725, her gunners at the 11-inch pivot guns fired their first rounds, joined 15 minutes later by the broadside guns. "As the Oneida was sternmost in line," Lieutenant Charles L. Huntington, the ship's executive officer, noted that the grapeshot fired by the ships ahead appeared to be falling in the water. Accordingly, Mullany ordered spherical-case shells, thin-walled and packed with musket balls in addition to bursting charges, fired.
As the Oneida approached Fort Morgan, however, a Confederate 7-inch shell penetrated her waterline and exploded in the main cabin, killing Cabin Steward Emmanuel Boyakin and, as Lieutenant Edward N. Kellogg put it, making "a complete wreck of the furniture, bulkheads, & everything so that hardly a piece of board the size of my arm could be found." Additionally, fragments severed both wheel ropes, but a party of Sailors manned the relieving tackles at once. Another shell hit forward on the Oneida's berth deck and exploded, starting a fire on top of the magazine. Acting Ensign John L. Hall, assisted by Gunner William Parker, immediately turned-to and extinguished the blaze. Huntington later wrote of Hall, "under Almighty God, we probably owe[d]" the safety of the ship to "[Hall's] presence of mind."
Almost simultaneously, another 7-inch shell penetrated the chain armor at the Oneida's waterline and exploded in the starboard boiler, scalding 13 men, one fatally, and injuring First Assistant Engineer Reuben H. Fitch, Chief Engineer William H. Hunt, and ten others. Hunt, whose arms were badly burned, lauded Fitch's courage in "remain[ing] at his station in the execution of his duties until he was so badly scalded . . . as to be almost helpless."
"A temporary panic . . . now ensued," Lieutenant Kellogg observed, "as the men from below rushed on deck with their faces and arms scalded in a frightful manner." From his station on the poop deck, Mullany, observing the "momentary confusion having been created," hastened forward to restore order. Having done so, he sent a message to the Galena's captain, Lieutenant Commander Clark H. Wells, to "carry a good head of steam, as one of our boilers was injured."
Rallied by their captain, the Oneida's crew "gave a loud cheer of defiance" as they spotted the ironclad ram Tennessee slowly approaching. Mullany ordered the guns loaded with extreme charges and solid shot, and the Oneida "poured a hot fire on the ugly looking rebel," but as Lieutenant Kellogg observed, even the "solid XI-inch shot glanced harmlessly from her mailed sides." The Tennessee drew alongside and opened fire, but "it seemed as though Providence had interposed for her primers all snapped." The reprieve from the Confederate's guns, however, proved only momentary, for as the ironclad moved slowly across the sloop's stern, she raked the Oneida.
"We were completely at her mercy," Lieutenant Kellogg lamented later, while the Tennessee's shells "went raking & crashing through us mangling & wounding our men while they had no chance to return our fire. The carnage here was awful." A fragment of a shell nearly severed Commander Mullany's left arm. A correspondent for the New York Daily Tribune watched as he "cooly took a handkerchief from his pocket, bound it around his arm" and then "for some time" spoke to Captain's Clerk George A. Ebbets. The same shell took off the head of a Marine, John J. Gibson, at Lieutenant Kellogg's 11-inch gun, spattering the officer with brains and blood.
As the Tennessee seemed to be maneuvering to ram the torn and crippled sloop, Oneida crewmen saw the Winnebago, commanded by their former captain, standing toward them. They could clearly see Commander Stevens "pacing the deck and directing the movements of his unwieldy craft." Ensign Charles V. Gridley noted how the Oneida's Sailors "sprang upon the rail and gave three cheers for Captain Stevens!"
The next day, Lieutenant Huntington reported to Admiral Farragut that,
The officers and crew of the Oneida are proud to have served in your fleet and they are proud of their gallant commander, J. R. M. Mullany, who gave us all so noble an example of unflinching courage and heroism. His coolness in action could not possibly have been surpassed.
Mullany warmly reciprocated Huntington's praise. He expressed his appreciation for "the cool courage of the officers and crew of the Oneida throughout the action," particularly lauding his executive officer. Mullany concluded: "No commander could be better supported in battle than I was." Eight of his men, seven Sailors and a Marine sergeant, earned the Medal of Honor for heroism at Mobile Bay.
Thomas Stevens reassumed command of the sloop on 16 August, and the Oneida was present at the surrender of Fort Morgan a week later. After another stint of blockading, off the coast of Texas, the ship steamed north to her building yard and was decommissioned on 11 August 1865. Under repairs during the following year, the Oneida was recommissioned on 8 May 1867 and assigned to the Asiatic Squadron, where she participated in the opening of the ports of Osaka and Hyogo. Ultimately, the survivor of the Battle of Mobile Bay suffered the tragic fate of being run down by the Peninsula and Oriental steamship City of Bombay in Tokyo Bay on the evening of 24 January 1870 and left to sink. (See "Death on a Dark Night," June 2008 Naval History.)