Though not well-remembered today, the sinking of the USS Oneida with the loss of 115 men near Yokohama, Japan on January 24, 1870, was the subject of great controversy at the time.
The USS Oneida was a screw-driven sloop-of-war launched in 1861 and commissioned in 1862. A Mohican-class vessel, the Oneida served in the West Gulf Blockading Squadron operations during the Civil War and, in the attacks on Forts Jackson and St. Philip on April 24, 1862, she destroyed the CSS Governor Moore.1 Eight of her crew (seven sailors and one marine) were awarded the Medal of Honor for actions during the 1864 Battle of Mobile Bay.2
After the war, the Oneida was recommissioned in 1867 and assigned to the Asiatic Squadron. It was during this assignment that she was in the port city of Yokohama in January of 1870. On the evening of January 24, as she departed the port on her return voyage to the United States, the Oneida was struck by the British Peninsular & Oriental (P&O) Line Steamer Bombay. The collision severely damaged the Oneida, which sank within about fifteen minutes, taking with her 115 sailors (20 officers / 95 enlisted men). Among those lost at sea were at least eight Chinese and six African American crew members.3
Another 61 sailors (4 officers / 57 enlisted men) were able to reach shore in the only two of the Oneida's lifeboats that were fit for launch.4 Japanese, Russian, French, British, and U.S. vessels in the vicinity later attempted to assist with rescue and recovery operations.
The controversy involved the assignment of blame for the collision, the subsequent actions of the Bombay, and whether more lives could have been saved. Among the contradicting testimonies of those aboard the Bombay and Oneida were opposing accounts of the exact circumstances leading up to and during the impact. They also emphatically disagreed over the specific distress signals, or lack thereof, implemented by the Oneida after the collision. The topic was hotly debated in official forums and public discourse, with Americans outraged over what seemed a callous disregard for human life on the part of the British ship, which had left the scene without any attempt to offer aid. Meanwhile the British maintained that the American ship had both caused the accident and failed to indicate their distress.
A British Court of Inquiry initiated January 27, 1870, found the Oneida crew responsible for the collision, but censured Captain Eyre of the Bombay for not “waiting and endeavoring to render assistance."5 A subsequent U.S. Court of Inquiry, which began February 25, 1870, placed all blame for both the collision and desertion on the Bombay, but did fault Captain Williams of the Oneida for failing to replace lifeboats that had been lost in a typhoon the previous August.6
Media and propaganda circulated the strong sentiments that personally touched communities across the United States grieving for the lost sailors, who had been homebound to waiting families and friends.
On January 24, 1870, 176 men set sail aboard the USS Oneida. Just as the ship has a history and a story, so do each of these men. The tragic and controversial sinking of the Oneida serves as a poignant case study, demonstrating how individual genealogical profiles can intersect with larger moments in history. Typical genealogical records can be combined with a variety of historical documents to provide greater contextual understanding for both the top-down and bottom-up approaches to studying historical events. Researchers learn more about each man by studying the moment in history, and more about the moment in history by studying each man.