originally published January 9, 2012
In April of 1861, as the Civil War became a reality, the US Navy came to the realization that they would probably need to kill a lot of people in the very near future. For that reason, they went into rapid production on 23 new gunboats, all of which were completed in 90 days. By today’s technology standards, this is like the modern navy constructing 23 gunboats in about fifteen minutes.
One of these ships was the USS Unadilla, possibly the most aptly named of the Unadilla-Class gunboats manufactured in this ‘manu-frenzy’ for use by the Union side. They were called ‘screw gunboats’, not because of the “to hell with guns!” attitude of the crew but because of the single-screw engines on board. I’d like to get into detail about these engines, but I’d rather skip ahead to the part where stuff starts blowing up.
The USS Unadilla was built in New York City and commissioned on September 30, with Captain Napoleon “Iron Balls” Collins in command. In October, the ship joined up with the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron (which would be a great name for a jam-band) under Rear Admiral Samuel F. “Grizzle-Barrel” Du Pont. The Unadilla was blasted six times but suffered no casualties as they took Port Royal Sound. The Unadilla lost its battle-virginity that day – there was an exhaustive struggle, some splintering penetration and a whole lot of water. Kind of reminds me of my first… no, I’m not going to finish that thought.
On to Beaufort, South Carolina, home of the Kazoobie Kazoo Factory, and the next city the Unadilla was sent to in order to restore order following the city’s recent capture by the North. The ship was on recon duty next, snooping up Wright’s River and reporting back that the Confederates were constructing a massive warship in Savannah.
Next it was off to blockade duty. Wait, really? One kick-ass gun-fight, then a bunch of sailing around with no action? There had better be an explosion soon.
On May 10, 1862, the Unadilla snagged an English ship en route to Charleston to deliver salt, weapons and Rogaine in order to keep the Southern fighters fed, armed and not bald. On the 29th of July the Unadilla exchanged about an hour’s worth of gunfire with Fort McAllister in Georgia, but it slunk away in defeat. A few days later, frustrated and looking to exert its manhood, the Unadilla captured another British ship, a steamer called the Lodona, which was carrying foodstuffs, shootstuffs and otherstuffs.
All was right and good in the Unadilla’s world again. People respected the ship, they admired its success, and the Union Navy clicked a collective ‘Like’ on the Facebook page of its asskickery.
In December, the Unadilla got into a fracas, a brouhaha, a Spankapalooza if you will, with a British steamer called the Princess Royal. Helpless and out-gunned, the Princess Royal was run aground, where it was discovered that she was hauling a massive amount of ammunition and weapons, as well as two steam engines bound for Confederate warships. This was an interception in the red zone, an infield double off the centerfielder’s head.
Then, as the great Civil War Admiral Titus Chamberlain “Balls Of Fire” Montgomery famously said, shit got real. The Confederate ships CSS Chicora and CSS Palmetto State showed up to kick the unified ass of the Charleston blockade. Here’s where I get my explosions, as both the Mercedita and the Keystone State (two Union ships) were blown to pieces, killing hundreds, possibly thousands, but probably just dozens of people.
The Charleston Blockade was battered but not beaten. The USS Unadilla was sent off to more dull duty, patrolling the Stono River in early 1863. By March she was called back, as Rear Admiral Du Pont decided it was time to start hammering the Confederate forts in Charleston. This was a huge success. Well, it was a huge success for the other guys – Charleston didn’t fall. The Unadilla survived, and was sent back to the Stono for more boring patrol duty. It took two drab months before she was shot at again.
In 1864 she was sent off to Florida where the ship struck a sandbar and had to go in for repairs. Not her proudest moment. She was patched up and sent to serve under Rear Admiral David Dixon “Dixon” Porter in Virginia as part of the North Atlantic blockade. After a month of excessive floating without getting shot at, the Unadilla went back down to North Carolina where it participated in the failed attempt to seize Fort Fisher. Two weeks later, the Unadilla returned for the sequel, a six-hour blast-fest that featured 56 ships and 8000 Union troops attacking by land, the largest amphibian assault the world would see until World War II. The Fort fell, and once again the Unadilla survived.
She next travelled up the Cape Fear River (insert Nick Nolte joke here), where she joined in the fight to capture Fort Anderson. Confederate forts had a pretty rotten year in 1865; by summer the war was over.
The Unadilla was decommissioned in May, but recommissioned in late 1866 for one last grasp at glory. She told her lover (I’m going to assume that warships take on other boats as lovers because it really adds some drama to this next part of the story) that she’d be back after this one last mission.
She was signed up as part of Rear Admiral Henry “Nickname” Bell’s Asiatic Squadron in 1867 and sent to battle pirates in China. The international effort was successful, knocking out almost all Chinese pirate activity by 1868. In June of that year, the Unadilla brought some dignitaries over to Bangkok. It was there that she was deemed too unseaworthy to travel back to the US. She sat alone, weeping for her lost love (see? Drama!), until she was sold for scrap on November 9, 1869.
A sad ending, maybe. But the USS Unadilla saw a lot of action, and though she didn’t die a heroic death in the field of battle, she died having done a lot of good for her country. Also, parts of her hull may have been used to construct a Bangkok whorehouse, so that’s something.