But up to a few weeks ago, that's about all I knew of this hero. Most say he was born in Boston. One reference says Nova Scotia. But from the last two blogs in this space you have learned that he was born in St. John's Newfoundland. Some say back in 1839. But you now know it was 1844.
History tells of his bravery and subsequent awarding of the Medal of Honor while serving on the USS John Adam. You now know it was the USS Canadaigua. Dedicated research has also shown his connection with USS Monitor and the CSS Merrimac, aka Merrimack/Virginia, probably one of the two most famous sea battles of the Civil War. (The other being the battle between the USS Kearsarge and the CSS Alabama, which also had Canadian connections noted in the past in this space.)
Further research also brought forth news of O'Brien's alleged desertion. Also his several attempts before having positive action taken by the US Congress to reverse the status and finally getting his actual medal.
And there is yet more! He played a role in the story of the first every sinking of a war ship by a submarine in US history.
If the Union could repel, capture or destroy supplies attempting to come in for supporting the southern cause, the lack of food and fuel, weapons and ammunition and funds would soon see the Southern States collapse. Thus the end of the war would follow. The cartoon above illustrates the point of the anaconda snake that would slowly close and choke off any resistance from within.
The capture of the Beatrice, and the sinking of the Cumberland and other vessels during the sea Battle of Hampton Roads (Monitor and Merrimack) (about midway down the right side of the above map) all played their own part in this overall blockade scheme.
That plank of wood turned out to be one of about 20 new submarines the South had developed in the 1864-5 era. And it had a deadly bite. So deadly that it was not recognized for what it was until about a minute later.
And within minutes the Housatonic lay dead at the bottom of the ocean floor. Five men died, but some of the 21 officers and 129 men got on a few life boats and the rest were saved by the crews of the USS Canandaigua just 15 minutes away when the ship was attacked. And we know that serving on the rescue ship's crew was none other than our man Oliver O'Brien.
It was indeed a deadly creation. It sank itself three times. Thirteen of her Confederate crew members died in it on its first two trial runs, with no harm to the Union vessels it was supposed to be targeting. Raised each time and put back into service, she was to have a run at the Housatonic a week earlier but again internal problems/weather conditions caused it to retreat.
But not so on Feb 17, 1864!
Like the Merrimac, the Hunley had a long spar (16 ft) attached to its front, below the water line. Fastened on its end was a torpedoe weighing about 135 pounds.
On approaching the enemy it poked a hole into the side and by backing out and pulling some sort of a triggering mechanism, fired the bomb which immediately took out a very large chunk of the starboard side of the Union vessel.
While the Hunley was never heard of again during the war, several theories floated about (pardon the pun) regarding its demise and taking the entire crew of 8 with it. Several years ago the Hunley was discovered, raised and worked on. Current believe is that it may have been too close to the explosion and not quick enough to escape and became a victim of its own success, if you will.
Regardless, the attack and sinking of the Union vessel was the fist case in US history of a war ship being destroyed by an enemy submarine.
Of particular interest to me, and hopefully you, is not just the O'Brien connection, but the fact that at least 4 of the 8 man Hunley crew were apparently non American born sailors.
Yet again an example of the role that non Americans played in so much of the Civil War history. A matter so often not getting significant mention by historians, politicians, the military and the media when discussing this horrible chapter of American... and indeed the world's history.
Back with you next week,