We haven’t written much about the U.S. Marines on this blog. They certainly were an important part of the U.S. Navy in the Civil War. The Marines had been in existence since the Revolutionary War. Initially they mirrored the role of the Royal Marines in the British Navy; helping to defend the ship from enemy boarding parties, and providing shipboard security and suppressing mutiny. These two roles continued into the Civil War, but the Marines by now were beginning the transition into an amphibious landing force that could project power ashore. They were involved in numerous shore expeditionary actions, along with Navy seamen, in all of the blockading squadrons during the war.
The USS Ft. Henry, patrolling the Florida gulf coast between Tampa Bay and St. Marks, had a small detachment of U.S. Marines assigned to the ship’s complement. In early June 1863, ship’s boats from the Fort Henry captured the sloop Emma off Seahorse Key. Having need of an extra boat, Lt. Commander McCauley decided to keep the sloop instead of sending it to Key West as a prize. Marine Orderly Sgt. Christopher Nugent had the sloop repaired and fitted out to transport his marines, and on 15 June 1863, Sgt. Nugent and six marines from the Fort Henry’s guard undertook an expedition up the Crystal River. About six miles upriver, Nugent spotted a log breastworks. Landing with a party of four marines, Nugent and his men drove away the 11 Confederates manning the small fortification. Nugent was hit, but not injured, by a shot from the officer commanding the militia as they retreated. He ordered his marines to hold their fire due to the presence of a woman in the midst of the enemy troops as they retreated. The marines carried off the small arms found in the works and destroyed the other material found there which they could not remove.
After receiving McCauley’s report of these actions, Adm. Bailey of the East Gulf Squadron wrote to Sec. Welles:
“I would respectfully suggest whether the conduct of Orderly Sergeant Nugent does not bring him within that class of men who should receive the medal of honor authorized by Congress to be given to ‘such petty officers, seamen, and marines as shall most distinguish themselves by gallantry in action,’ etc.”
On 16 April 1864, Marine Sgt. Nugent was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions at Crystal River (now known as the “Congressional Medal of Honor”). Today is the 150th Anniversary of his actions which earned this award. An article profiling Sgt. Nugent and his actions, written by my Ft. Henry shipmate Dave Ekardt, is on the Navy and Marine Living History "Webzine" at: http://www.navyandmarine.org/ondeck/1862USMC_MoH.htm