Sunday, February 7, 2010

African Americans in the Civil War: John Lawson and Robert Smalls

Eight African-American sailors won the Congressional Medal of Honor during the American Civil War. Former slave John Lawson became of four African-Americans who earned the Medal of Honor aboard the USS Hartford at the famous Battle of Mobile Bay. Lawson served as an ammunition handler during the August 1864 conflict, refusing to leave the fight as shells exploded around him. Lawson himself was thrown against the bulkhead of the Hartford from a shell blast, wounding him in both legs. His Medal of Honor Citation reads:

"On board the flagship U.S.S. Hartford during successful attacks against Fort Morgan, rebel gunboats and the ram Tennessee in Mobile Bay on 5 August 1864. Wounded in the leg and thrown violently against the side of the ship when an enemy shell killed or wounded the 6-man crew as the shell whipped on the berth deck, Lawson, upon regaining his composure, promptly returned to his station and, although urged to go below for treatment, steadfastly continued his duties throughout the remainder of the action."

Although he did not win the Congressional Medal of Honor, pilot Robert Smalls also displayed heroism in combat. Smalls and a small group of African-Americans escaped on the side-wheel steamer Planter just before dawn on 13 May 1862 in Charleston, South Carolina. Smalls and his crew of nine men, five children, and three children set out to the ocean until the blockade ship Onward found her. For his capture of the Confederate vessel, Smalls received his freedom, $4,500 in prize money, and command of the ship itself for blockade duty. Smalls would later go on to serve on the South Carolina state legislature and later U.S. House of Representatives.

Note: An excellent source for Robert Smalls and his family is Andrew Billingsley, Yearning to Breathe Free: Robert Smalls of South Carolina and His Families. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2007. Dr. Billingsley spoke at a 2009 Luncheon Lecture sponsored by the Hampton Roads Naval Museum.

For more information, please see John Lawson's Medal of Honor citation at

Bernard Nalty, Long Passage to Korea, 7.

Stephen Ramold, Slaves, Sailors, Citizens, 130. Other African-American Medal of Honor winners at the Battle of Mobile Bay include William H. Brown, James Mifflin, and Wilson Brown.

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