It was mostly because of the lead vessel... the Confederate's CSS Merrimac. (Actually that vessel was a rebuilding of an early one called the Merrimack, and then given the name Virginia, but so early in the game when fame was theirs for the taking, the name Merrimac seemed to stick.)
While the battle only lasted about three hours on March 9th. and for which it gained fame, most of its destruction took place the day before. Regardless, those few hours have more than quadrupled in the time needed..and continues, in researching this topic. With this work, many fascinating tidbits have comes my way. And many of these also touch on Canadian involvement.
The ongoing story has appeared in this place many times.
Last week I reminded with you a little of the great work a fellow member of the Medal Of Honor Historical Society of the US had done in the updating of a grave marker for Master Sergeant Husking Jr. I also noted that because of this work Don Morfe played a role in identifying the remains of another Medal of Honor recipient. He was simply buried under a number for over 120 years. Morfe's efforts, shared with others, ensured a proper marker was put in place.
This 2nd fellow was instrumental in helping to save those escaping a watery grave. He served on another ship that was dispatched to the rescue. And the doomed vessel was none other than the USS Monitor, sinking in a terrible gale.
Serving on the Monitor at the time was a sailor by the name of Alex Scott, who was born in Quebec. Later in the war Scott would enlist with the army, and in July 1864 his bravery at the famed battle at Monocacy Md. resulted in being awarded with a Medal of Honor. His story has appeared here in the past.
Another story also appearing in this space previously told of the bravery of James McIntosh. His bravery as a sailor fighting at Mobile Bay less than a month after Scott's deed, also resulted in the awarding of the Medal of Honor. He was born in Montreal. And in the famous Monitor and Merrimac battle he was serving on the USS Cumberland that was slaughtered on the first day's few hour battle that ended with a 3 hour stand-off battle on the 9th. Serving with him was a fellow named O'Brien, to be introduced in a few minutes.
The Merrimac was so constructed that penetrating its iron above waterline surface was almost impossible, not only due to strength but also because of the angles. In most cases, shells just bounced off it. Nevertheless, the Cumberland did managed to take out two of the Southerners ship guns and caused internal damage. It also killed their ram. A 1500 pound long poll... or ram ...under the waterline that held a bomb at its end. It was rammed into the side of the Cumberland leaving a whole big enough to drive a horse and cart through.
While the Cumberland sank in minutes, it was later determined that its damage to the Merrimac was more sever than from any other damage caused to that vessel in battles both on the 8th and 9th. It in fact almost sunk the Merrimac when its ram got caught in the Cumberland's side but finally gave way and allowed the ironclad to back off. The Merrimac only lost two men in that first day's battle. The first being a lad from New Brunswick.
Over the years both sides of the famous sea battle would claim they won the day. Historians would later claim that both sides, for a variety of reasons, no doubt including frustration at not taking out their foe, simply backed away to await another duel later in the war.
About 9 months after the sinking the ship would be immortalized with the thanks of the poem... "The Cumberland" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
But let's get back to Oliver O'Brien.
I have known for some time that O'Brien was a Medal of Honor recipient for actions in 1864. At that time he was serving on the USS Canandaigua, shown at above right. But just recently I found that 2 years earlier he served on the USS Cumberland from October of 1860 till it was sunk by the Merrimac.
O'Brien then took his release from the US Navy in June 1862, but changed his mind and re-enlisted in August with the USS Canandaigua for a 3 year term. In his first and this 2nd enlistment the forms state that he was born, and enlisted at Boston. Later info shows this to be wrong.
The 18 gun Sloop of War Canandaigua was attached to the naval squadron in the South Atlantic tasked with the capture or destruction of Southern blockade runners trying to bring in supplies for the Confederacy. The ship had good success with the capture and destroying of several vessels in and around the Harbour waters of Charleston. It also fought with the Union fleet on several attacks on the harbour defenses.
In late November 1864 she played a role in the heated battle against the 500 tone Confederate runner Beatrice which was trying to land its cargo near Sullivans Island in the harbour. It was here that Fort Moultrie stood, and from where Major Anderson had to abandon for a better defensive position at Fort Sumter days before the battle said to have started Civil War in mid April 1861.
Fort Moultrie in 1864, was in Confederate hands and firing heavily on USS Canandaigua while it and several boarding craft tackled with the Confederate's Beatrice. The late November battle saw O'Brien leading one of the landing crews under very heavy fire. He and others captured some valuable supplies, set the enemy ship ablaze and came away with about 30 prisoners.
His ship's captain would later say that several... including O'Brien... "merit in my opinion, special notice for their prompt and energetic conduct."
Rear Admiral Dahlgren, the squadron commander wrote to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, (one of the men responsible for the very creation of the navy MOH) supported the congrats to his men, and even added that the ENEMY also noted the bravery of his crew. The Admiral also wrote that the sailors involved are..."deserving all commendation for their conduct in this matter."
In early December of that year Oliver O'Brien was promoted by the Admiral to either Acting..or Full Master's Mate, (a snr Petty Officer position.) For his bravery O'Brien was also promised a $100 bonus. (Probably equivalent to about 5 months pay of the day)
On 31 December 1864 the 4th ever General Order listing those awarded a naval Medal of Honor was issued. It listed 146 medals covering a long stretch of time. It, like the first three listed Canadian recipients. In this one there were 10 so listed, though one was later shown, in this space, to actual not be a Canadian recipient.
This listing has O'Brien listed on the correct ship, though many references to this day say he was on a ship called the John Adam.
Most recently I located some information that added to the O'Brien story. It noted that in early April he was transferred to another vessel with the rank of a Master's Mate, and within days took sick and granted a 30 day furlow to return home at Boston and regain his health. Several weeks later he apparently was sent an order to return to his ship. But being delirious at the time it did not register. Within days he was then listed in the Naval Register as a deserter. By the time he regained his senses, he discovered his leave was up, but by then the war had ended. Not knowing where his ship or comrades where he simply went on with his life.
One most difficult so far to get more info on... till the 1890's.
By then he had tried to find out whatever happened to his Medal of Honor and the promised $100 bonus. He no doubt discovered his listing as a deserter and started to try and resolve the issue.
The US Congress tool up his cause as you can see below...
I hope I have helped to sort Oliver's out and not put you to sleep in the telling.
I'd best not say there is still more to come... but I will leave that till Sunday.