One of three ironclad warships built for the Union after news of the Confederacy’s progress on the C.S.S. Virginia reached Washington. As a result of an act of Congress passed on 3 August 1861, a board of officers was created to examine the ironclad problem. After six weeks it authorised work on three designs (including Ericsson’s Monitor). One of the three, offered by Bushnell & Co, of New Haven was to result in the Galena.
Compared to the Monitor, the Galena was a very traditional ship. Like the British H.M.S. Warrior she combined steam and sail power. Her guns were mounted to fire broadsides, unlike the Monitor with her single turret. As first build she was provided with six guns, each of which could be fired from either side of the ship. Her initial armament consisted of two 6.4 inch Parrott guns (rifled, muzzle loading guns) and four 9 inch smoothbore guns. This made her the least powerfully armed of the three prototype Union ironclads. The New Ironsides carried twenty guns, including two 8 inch Parrott guns and fourteen 11 inch smoothbores, while the Monitor carried two turret mounted 11 inch smoothbores.
Her armour was thinner than that carried by all of the other early ironclads. She was originally planned to carry 2.5 inches of armour, backed by 1.5 inches of rubber, but before she was built the rubber was replaced by thicker armour, and eventually she sailed with 3 inch armour. This armour was made up of iron planks, arranged in rows along the hull of the ship. Her sides sloped in from the water towards the decks, to give her what is known as ‘tumblehome’ (the same concept can be seen on tanks such as the Soviet T-34). It was hoped that this sloped armour would help protect her from damage by deflecting enemy shots. This would help protect the Galena against naval gunfire hitting from the side, but make her more vulnerable to plunging fire. In her first battle, the Galena would be exposed to just that sort of fire.
Ordered at the same time as the Monitor, the Galena was launched two weeks later, on 14 February 1862 (New Ironsides was not ready until May 1862). She was not able to reach Hampton Roads in time to play any part in the battle on 8-9 March. The result of that fight, and the ‘Monitor fever’ that followed made the Galenaobsolete before she had fired her first shot in anger.
Her career as an ironclad was short. She was commissioned on 21 April 1862. She was used to bombard Confederate shore positions on the James River, a role for which she was not really suited. Her first battle came at Drewry’s Bluff, on 15 May 1862. This position, eight miles from Richmond, was the Confederate capitol’s last line of defence on the James River. The Confederate guns were in a strong position, high above the river. This meant that most of the Union ships, including the Monitor were unable to fire on them. Only the Galenawas able to elevate her guns enough to seriously threaten the Confederate position, but this exposed her to the very same plunging fire that her armour was most vulnerable to.
In the end she performed well, remaining under fire for four hours. However, her guns could make little impression of the Confederate positions, and she was suffering badly. At the end of the four hours, she had suffered 13 dead and 11 wounded, while the rest of the Union fleet only suffered three wounded in total.
The Galena was extensively refitted between May 1863 and February 1864. Most importantly, her iron armour was removed, turning her into a normal wooden gunboat. At the same time her firepower was increased, with the addition of another four 9 inch smooth bore guns, although one of the 6.4 inch Parrott guns was replaced by a smaller 4.2 inch gun.
The refitted Galena took part in one more major naval battle. In the summer of 1864 Mobile was one of the few ports to remain in Confederate hands. Her defences were formidable, but this did not stop David Farragut. On 5 August he took his fleet past the forts guarding the entrance to Mobile Bay, and sank the Confederate fleet inside the bay. The Galena was part of that fleet. She was at the rear of the fleet as it forced its way into the bay, along with the Oneida. The second ship was badly damaged, and took heavy casualties (8 dead and 30 wounded). Galena took her in partial tow, and together they got to relative safety inside the bay. During this battle the Galena suffered very lightly, only losing one man wounded.
The Galena was one of the first wartime ships to be broken up, in 1872, although she was commemorated by the construction of a new Galena, a wooden sloop that remained in service until 1892. The original Galena had represented something of a dead end in warship design. Even by the time she was launched, it was clear that Monitor style ships would dominate the wartime navy. Her relatively thin armour and vulnerability to plunging fire only served to shorten her life as an Ironclad.