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Full portrait of a clean-cut young man, standing very erect and with a serious expression, in a photo studio.
John R. Phelan, still a teenager, in his U.S. Naval Academy uniform. Photo: Wallace & Craig. Waynesburg University Paul R. Stewart Museum Collection

John Phelan and the Sinking of the USS Oneida

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This is a guest post by Candice Buchanan, writing with recently retired colleague Mark F. Hall. Both are/were reference librarians in the History and Genealogy Section.

My career started in a graveyard. I still do volunteer work there.

The graveyard in question is Green Mount, located on a hilltop on the outskirts of Waynesburg, Pennsylvania. This is in the far southwestern pocket of the state. My family has been there for several generations. As a teenager, I discovered my love of genealogy in no small part by walking past the rows of tombstones in this cemetery, fascinated by the shorthand accounts of lives buried beneath them.

The career that resulted from this youthful fascination is now to be working as a reference librarian in the History and Genealogy Section of the Library. On a recent visit back home, I walked through Green Mount — a dutiful affection keeps drawing me back — and I found my professional curiosity piqued by a white marble cenotaph in the Phelan family plot, which lies just a few steps from that of my family.

Most of the Phelan markers were made of brown sandstone, so the taller, whiter marker stood out. The inscription was also striking. The rest of the family had the basic names and dates. This one was a short story unto itself:

“Erected in the Memory of Lieut. John R. Phelan, U. S. N., Aged 23 Years & 4 Mo., who was lost on board the USS Oneida by a collision with the British steamer Bombay on the 24th day of Jan. 1870 in the Bay of Yokohama, Japan.”

A woodcut illustration showing a ship going under in heavy seas, with one lifeboat rowing away.
The sinking of the Oneida, from a sketch by a survivor. Engraving: Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper March 19, 1870.

I was intrigued, though I had never heard of the Oneida or the Bombay or the international incident that followed, much less of John Phelan. But fellow genealogists will relate to the way in which each past person in our research seems to wait their turn to step forward so that their story might be told.

And so it was here.

I took my fascination back to the Library. With the collaboration of my colleague, Mark Hall, who specializes in maritime history, we dove into the long-ago international scandal that took young John Phelan’s life and that of so many others. Along the way, we created an in-depth research guide for readers and researchers to use. It’s filled with ship documentation, government records, books, magazines and newspapers that reported on the sinking. There are also strategies for how to apply genealogical research.

We are still digging, for John indeed stepped forward for his turn.

Briefly: The Oneida was a screw (propeller-driven) sloop with three masts and square sails. It was launched in 1861 and commissioned in 1862. The ship served in the West Gulf Blockading Squadron operations during the Civil War. Eight of her crew were awarded the Medal of Honor for actions during the 1864 Battle of Mobile Bay. After the war, the Oneida was recommissioned and assigned to the Asiatic Squadron.

Three years later, on Jan. 24, 1870, the ship departed the Japanese port city of Yokohama. Soon after, in the early darkness, the Oneida was hit by the Bombay, a British steamer. The Bombay sped on, offering no help. The Oneida went down in about 15 minutes, taking 115 sailors with her, among them Phelan. (Though the figure 125 was frequently reported, official government records identify 115.) His body was never recovered. Only 61 sailors survived.

Sepia toned half portrait of John Phelan. A young man, he is seated, wearing a military uniform and is half turned to face the camera. He has a mustache and has a serious expression.
John R. Phelan, just promoted to the rank of ensign. Photo: S. G. Rogers. Waynesburg University, Paul R. Stewart Museum Collection.

The disaster sparked a heated controversy on the far side of the world. Who was responsible for the collision? Why didn’t the Bombay help? Could lives have been saved?

The diplomatic result was a split decision.

A British Court of Inquiry decided on Feb. 12, 1870, that the Oneida crew was responsible for the collision, but censured Capt. Arthur W. Eyre of the Bombay for not “waiting and endeavoring to render assistance.” A subsequent U.S. Court of Inquiry provided an opinion on March 2, 1870, which placed blame for both the collision and desertion on the Bombay, but did fault Capt. Edward P. Williams of the Oneida for failing to replace lifeboats that had been lost in an earlier typhoon.

And John Rogers Phelan, one of the many lost at sea?

Our research, built on a range of sources, shows that he grew up a child of promise, raised in financial comfort, with good family connections. He was the youngest son of John Phelan and Jane Walker. His father was a lawyer (who, by chance, studied the profession under my fourth-great-grandfather, Andrew Buchanan) and a politician. Both men served in the Pennsylvania state legislature. The Phelan and Buchanan families lived near each other on High Street in Waynesburg, within walking distance of the Greene County Courthouse.

The Phelans lived in, and added onto, one of the most impressive houses in town, the Whitehill Place (named for the original owner, who built it in 1808). It’s now a historic landmark and stands on the northwest corner of High and Cumberland streets.

Still, John did not choose to stay in these privileged surroundings and follow in his father’s profession. Instead, at 15, he entered the U.S. Naval Academy, graduating with the Class of 1866. He was successful in his career, being promoted from midshipman to ensign to master. He was in his early 20s then and had not married. If he kept a diary, it is lost. So far, we have not found any letters. We did find photos of him, one in his U.S. Naval Academy uniform and the other after he was promoted to ensign, in a photo book kept by his only sister, Mary (Phelan) Hogue, in the archives of Waynesburg University. She had been one of its earliest women graduates in 1864. 

In the last surviving ship log of the Oneida, there are regular written reports of weather and conditions in what we think is Phelan’s handwriting and with his signature, but we are still working to confirm that.

John Phelan’s signature in the ship’s log. We believe it to be in his hand, not filled in by another colleague, but are still working to confirm this. U.S. National Archives.

And then the record goes silent. The Oneida is hit and sinks.

In the 1870 U.S. Census Mortality Schedule, John’s family reported him as drowned. More than a century later, the family’s grief can still be documented in that cenotaph (and its detailed inscription) that caught my attention — it’s so strikingly different from those of the rest of the family. John’s death was clearly shocking and outrageous to them, no doubt exacerbated by his body never being found.

For several other Oneida sailors, we have found family papers. One of the men lost at sea had supported his mother, and she was granted a pension. Included in the paperwork are his letters home from service. They are heartbreaking to read in the aftermath. These and papers from other Oneida sailors can be found in our research guide.

This project has been engulfing. We plan to do a presentation to share some of the individual case studies because they are unique and incredible, plus they reveal research paths that can be learned from as examples.

John Phelan was the starting point for us. He stepped forward and caught our attention. Now he’s introducing us to each of his shipmates as well.

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Comments (4)

  1. I come from the same hometown of John Phelan and Candice Buchanan and I have walked past this tall white stone whose inscription is fading and weathered many times without realizing its true, far reaching significance. Thanks for the wonderful research of capable LOC staff to reveal John’s story and this significant but mostly forgotten event in US history. Good genealogy research can often reveal so much more than just names and dates. Thank you for sharing!

  2. My dad coerced me into joining the US Navy because he didn’t want me to be, “cannon fodder”.
    It was 1967 and I was draft eligible.
    I was so afraid of going to sea but after I served on a fleet tug during the last year of my service I was certain that it was something I was going to remember fondly, and something I would miss.
    It does call me back.

  3. Thank you Candice and Mark for a good piece of research work and letting us know about it. Although I grew up (and once again live) about a mile north of Waynesburg, I too have roamed Green Mount and wondered about the details behind the John Phelan memorial. I salute you.

  4. Really interesting piece! Thank you for all of your great work!

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