Born in Ireland, John enlisted at age 20 on 21 Jul 1862 in Portsmouth for 3 years as a Landsman with the US Navy. He served on the U. S. S. “Ohio,” “Hartford,” and “Freeborn “. He was discharged 31 May 1865 from the USS “Freeborn” for time expired. The muster roll of the USS “Hartford” on July 1864 lists him as: John O’Brien, ordinary seaman, July 21, 1862, Portsmouth, 3, USS “Potomac”, born Ireland (citizen of U.S.), 20, grey eyes, brown hair, light complexion.
John O’Brien is believed to have been living with the Thomas O’Brien family in the 1860 census. Several family members, all born in Ireland, where working as “operatives” in the cotton mills. After the War, he returned to the family and later moved in with Patrick O’Brien. John is listed as a moulder, living on Leavitt’s Court in the 1872 Town Directory with Patrick, also a laborer.
Fitting out at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, the “Hartford” was designated as the flagship of Flag Officer David G. Farragut’s West Gulf Blockading Squadron. Clearing the Delaware Capes on January 28, 1862, “Hartford” sailed south and west to its blockading post. In addition to blockading duties, Farragut had been tasked with the capture of New Orleans. The Confederacy’s largest port, New Orleans also controlled the entrance to the Mississippi River. Farragut’s thrust north to New Orleans would coincide with Union Army efforts to drive down the river from the north. The capture of the Mississippi would allow Union forces to effectively split the Confederacy in two. Anchoring at Ship Island, MS on February 20, Farragut began assembling his forces for pushing up the river.
(photo: USS “Hartford” while running Fort St. Philip ran into a load of trouble. The Confederate tug Mosher laid a fire raft beside Farragut’s flagship and set her on fire. The signal officer on “Hartford” dropped a few shells onto the fire raft and blew it up. Hosed down, “Hartford” steered up river with her port beam still smoldering.)
Forts Jackson and St. Philip occupied a position on the river below the city. Crossing the bar, the Union ships entered the river and Farragut began attempts to reduce the forts using his mortar boats on April 18.
Electing to run past the forts, Farragut advanced on the night of April 24. Led by “Hartford”, the Union ships steamed upstream and began exchanging fire with the forts. Pushing north,
the flagship dodged a ramming attempt by the ironclad CSS “Manassas” but grounded near Fort St. Philip after evading a burning barge. Maintaining a cool presence, Farragut freed the ship and successfully led the fleet past the forts. Steaming upstream, “Hartford” reached New Orleans the next day and Farragut soon received the city’s surrender.
USS “Hartford” - Type: screw sloop of war, Shipyard: Boston Navy Yard, Launched: November 22, 1858; Commissioned: May 27, 1859
Fate: Decommissioned August 20, 1926, Scrapped, 1956
USS “Hartford” - On the Mississippi:
On May 1, Union troops under Major General Benjamin Butler arrived to occupy the city. Freed from overseeing the situation at New Orleans, Farragut began moving up river.
Departing the city six days later, Farragut quickly saw Baton Rouge, LA and Natchez, MS fall to Union forces. Farragut’s advance continued unimpeded until reaching the batteries at Vicksburg, MS. Unable to attack them from the water due their location high on the bluffs, he lacked the soldiers to capture them. Unable, Farragut left gunboats to blockade the river and returned to New Orleans onboard the “Hartford”. Arriving, he received orders from President Abraham Lincoln directing him to work with Flag Officer Charles Davis’ Western Flotilla to open the river.
(photo: Farragut at Mobile Bay . U.S.S.”Hartford” and CSS “Tennessee” at close quarters at Mobile Bay, 5 August 1864. —Naval Records and Library, Navy Department, from a painting by W. H. Overend “Naval Customs Traditions and Usage by Leland P. Lovette (1939)”
Agin steaming north, Farragut’s squadron successfulyl ran past the batteries at Vicksburg on June 28. Uniting with Davis, the Union ships operated against Vicksburg but lacked the troops to take the city. Ordered downstream in July, Farragut took “Hartford” to Pensacola, FL for an overhaul. Returning to the river in November, Farragut sought to support Major General Ulysses S. Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign from the south. To do this, he intended to blockade the Red River to prevent supplies from reaching the city’s garrison. Moving north, the Union squadron was thwarted by the new Confederate batteries at Port Hudson, LA. Attempting to run them on the night of March 14, 1863, only the “Hartford” and USS “Albatross” (3) succeeded in passing the enemy guns. For the next several weeks, the two ships patrolled the river between Vicksburg and Port Hudson.
On July 4, Vicksburg surrendered to Grant. This was followed by the capture of Port Hudson five days later.
(photo: The Sloop-of-War USS “Hartford”, Admiral Farragut’s flagship waits to be “coaled” in harbor, date and location unknown. Photo by Mathew B. Brady from the collection the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.)
With the Mississippi River open to Union traffic, Farragut began planning for operations against the port of Mobile, AL. Assembling fourteen warships and four ironclad monitors off Mobile Bay, Farragut planned his assault for August 5, 1864. Inside the bay, Confederate Admiral Franklin Buchanan possessed a small force comprised of the ironclad CSS “Tennessee” and three gunboats. Advancing toward the forts guarding the entrance to the bay, Farragut’s squadron incurred the first loss when the monitor USS “Tecumseh” struck a mine and sank. Seeing the ironclad go down, USS “Brooklyn” slowed, throwing the Union line into confusion.
Lashing himself to ” Hartford’s” rigging to see over the smoke, Farragut exclaimed “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!” and led his ship into Mobile Bay with the rest of fleet following. Pressing through the torpedo field without any losses, the Union squadron poured into the bay and engaged Buchanan’s ships. Driving away the gunboats, the Union ships closed on CSS “Tennessee” and battered the rebel ironclad into submission. With Union vessels in the bay, the forts surrendered and military operations against the city of Mobile began. In the course of the fighting, twelve sailors from “Hartford” earned the Medal of Honor.
(US Navy poster showing Farrgaut lashed to the mast)
USS Freeborn - Searching for the assassins of President Lincoln
The USS “Thomas Freeborn” was repaired at the Washington Navy Yard in early January 1865. Returning to duty, she captured blockade runner William Smith on 3 March 1865 in the Piankatank River, Virginia. On 17 April, she was ordered by the Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton, to patrol the Chesapeake Bay from Point Lookout, Maryland, to the mouth of the Patuxent River, Maryland, in search of the assassins of President Abraham Lincoln.
(photo: Sighting in a gun on the USS “Freeborn”, 1861. Photo by Brady)
Finding nothing, she was ordered to proceed to Cherrystone, Virginia, on 1 May 1865 and warned of the expected arrival of Confederate ram CSS”Stonewal”l from Europe. The steamer returned to the Washington Navy Yard later in the month. John O’brien was discharged 31 May 1865 from the USS “Freeborn” for time expired.
Shortly after, the “Thomas Freeborn” was decommissioned at the Washington Navy Yard on 17 June 1865 and was sold at auction, and finally disposed of in 1887.
Sources: This article incorporates text from the public domain Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships; American Civil War: USS Hartford, By Kennedy Hickman, About.com Guide; US Navy: USS Hartford.
Newmarket NH Historical Society - #72.44 Marion Mitchell Cutts, donation of O’Brien’s Civil War uniform coat, hat & duffle bag . Marion Mitchell in 1915 was a music teaching living in her father’s (Robert J. Mitchell’s) boarding house on South Street. She married Elmer Cutts in July 1919. Both Marion (UNH Class of 1916) and Elmer ( UNH Class of 1917) established a UNH Scholarship from their estates to provide financial assistance annually to students of outstanding ability and good morals who are enrolled in the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences.