African American US Medal Of Honor Recipients During The Civil War – Part I: US Navy

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U.S. Navy poster featuring Medal of Honor recipient Aaron Anderson. Courtesy of the Naval History and Heritage Command # NH 103775.

The Medal of Honor was established in 1862 to honor soldiers and sailors who served beyond the call of duty. It is the United States’ highest military decoration. Battle flags were such significant fixtures on Civil War battlefields for both Union and Confederate armies, and many recipients were awarded their medals for defending or capturing a flag. Twenty-six  Medal of Honor awards were conferred upon African American service members during the Civil War. Eight were presented to naval personnel, the rest to soldiers. 

Landsman Aaron Anderson

Landsman Anderson served aboard the stores ship USS Wyandank with the Potomac Squadron. Anderson, who is also referred to as Sanderson, received his Medal of Honor for a small boat action on Mattox Creek, Virginia. Wyandank was a sidewheeler built in 1847 and was armed with one 20-pounder rifle and one 12-pounder smoothbore. While on blockading duty on the Potomac River on March 17, 1865, a cutter with one boat howitzer was launched from the USS Don. Ensign Summers commanded the boat, and Anderson was detailed to be among several men rowing the vessel. While clearing the creek’s left branch, the cutter came under heavy fire from about 400 Confederates. The launch continued to move forward to burn three schooners successfully.   Read more

The Emancipation Proclamation: What did it actually say and mean for African Americans in the 1860s?

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Abraham Lincoln. The Mariners’ Museum MS0311/-01#005

Do a Google search for important documents in US history and you get lists that include the Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, Bill of Rights, the Constitution, and of course, the Emancipation Proclamation.

Going to school in the mid to late 80s in the panhandle of Florida, it was constantly being drilled into my head that the Emancipation Proclamation, written in 1863, freed all slaves in the United States of America. Having studied the Emancipation Proclamation document for various positions that I have held over the years, I have come to understand the significance of this important document so much more.    Read more

Tragedy on the Mississippi

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The Assassination of President Lincoln, Courtesy of Library of Congress. Call No. LC-F81- 2117 [P&P]

A Somber Day

Today marks a somber day in the history of the United States of America. 155 years ago, our country suffered its, to this day unbeaten, greatest maritime disaster by loss of life. If that seems surprising to you, then you aren’t alone. It is, unfortunately, a chapter of our collective maritime heritage that has been largely forgotten. Why? Because it happened at the end of April in 1865.

If you’re familiar with the history of the American Civil War, then you no doubt know that April of 1865 was one of the most formative years of our Union. It was a month that saw union forces march into Richmond and high-profile surrenders that led to the end of the war. It was the month in which Abraham Lincoln was shot and killed by actor and confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth. The day immediately before the disaster, Booth was cornered in Bowling Green, VA, and slain by Sergeant Boston Corbett of the 16th New York Cavalry.   Read more

Gosport in Crisis

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USS Merrimack, ca. 1855. Lithograph after drawing by G.G. Pook. Courtesy of US Naval History & Heritage Command NH#46248

Tensions were rising throughout the South during the first week of April 1861. While the Upper South had yet to join the Confederacy, the Lincoln administration was alert to the threatening war clouds and the possibility of states, like Virginia, leaving the Union. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles recognized that Gosport Navy Yard and the steam screw frigate USS Merrimack were tempting targets for pro-secessionist Virginians. Accordingly, on April 10,1861, Welles advised Gosport Navy Yard commandant Flag Officer Charles Stewart McCauley that he must show great vigilance in protecting the yard. He stated that it was important that one of the US Navy’s most modern warships, Merrimack, be repaired and moved to another navy yard. Welles added that McCauley was to do nothing to upset the Virginians and to use his best judgment in discharging his duties to protect Gosport. Welles concluded, it is “desirable that there should be no steps taken to give needless alarm.”

 Merrimack Readies for Sea

Gosport’s commandant responded by telegram on April 11, stating that it would take a month to revitalize Merrimack’s dismantled engines. Welles was shocked by McCauley’s reply, calling the yard commandant “feeble and incompetent for the crisis.” He sent US Navy’s chief engineer, Benjamin Franklin Isherwood, to Gosport to prepare Merrimack for sea. Isherwood estimated that it would take him a week to rework the ship’s engines. Commander James Alden was ordered to accompany Isherwood and assume command of the frigate. They arrived at Gosport Navy Yard on April 14, 1861. Isherwood immediately set to work restoring Merrimack’s  machinery.   Read more

Gosport Navy Yard: Before the Storm

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Gosport Navy Yard, Portsmouth, ca. 1840. Historical Recollections of Va, Henry Howe, 1852. Library of Congress.
Gosport’s Beginnings

Gosport Navy Yard, located in Portsmouth, across the Elizabeth River from the busy port of Norfolk, Virginia, was one of the largest shipyards in the United States. Norfolk merchant Andrew Sprowl established the yard in 1767. Sprowl remained a loyalist when the Revolutionary War erupted. The yard was confiscated by the Commonwealth of Virginia, and then burned by the British in 1779.

The yard remained inactive until 1794, when the property was leased by the United States. Captain Richard Dale served as the superintendent for this new government shipyard. When the US Navy was formally established in 1798, it assumed operation of the yard and designated it as the Gosport Navy Yard.   Read more