Staff Sergeant Ryan Pitts is the most recent recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor. The honor is awarded to military personnel for personal acts of valor above and beyond the call of duty. Pitt joins an exclusive fraternity. Just over three thousand soldiers out of the millions of U.S. servicemen and women are awarded the Medal of Honor. It also connects soldiers today to some of the first recipients of the award following the Battle of Mobile Bay.
“John Lawson is serving in the shell whip, it’s the area where they are bringing powder and shells up from the storage lockers up to the guns and an incoming shot goes off in that confined space.” says Ken Johnston, executive director of the National Civil War Naval Museum in Columbus, Georgia. “He’s stunned, knocked unconscious, wounded there are dead men on top of him you know these smoldering fragments choking smoke, he gets up and continues passing the much needed ammunition and gun powder up and goes on about his job.”
For this action during the Battle of Mobile Bay, John Lawson received the Medal of Honor. Lawson and 114 men received the U.S. military’s highest honor for Mobile Bay which makes it second only to the Battle of Vicksburg for the most decorated battle in U.S history. So why were so many medals awarded for this engagement? That depends on who you ask.
"By the time you get to 1864, Mobile is a very strategically important place” says Edwin Combs, assistant professor of history at Miles College. “It’s the last remaining port on the Confederate Gulf Coast; it’s used for blockade running. Cotton goes out of Mobile to Cuba and then military goods and supplies come back in.”
The port is significant enough that come early August, Admiral David Farragut decides to take his Union fleet to Mobile Bay in an attempt to cut off the port and capture the city. Farragut would steer the Hartford and the rest of his fleet into Mobile Bay for a clash with Confederate forces on August 5th.
“David Farragut himself said it was the hardest battle he was ever involved in and that’s saying a whole lot because he was involved in fighting on the Mississippi River, intense fighting there,” says Mike Bailey, site director at Fort Morgan. “But just the nature of the fighting, it’s the largest naval battle that was during the Civil War and just the intensity that went down. At the very beginning of the battle you lose your lead monitor and then the fighting with the Tennessee up the bay later on.”
So we have a strategically important port that if taken could cripple the Confederacy and intense fighting between Union and Confederate forces in the war’s largest naval battle. Are there any other explanations for all the Medal of Honor Awards?
“One of the reasons so many of them are being awarded in the Civil war is it’s the only medal the Navy has,” says John Beeler who teaches history at the University of Alabama. “There are Navy Stars and other forms of commendation for conspicuous bravery above and beyond the call of duty which don’t quite rise to the level of the Congressional Medal of Honor. There are plenty of those now, but there’s nothing else in the Civil War so it becomes this sort of all or nothing mentality. If you’re going to give a naval sailor an award basically the only one you can give him is the Congressional Medal of Honor.”
Mike Bailey says that may explain how John Smith won his Medal of Honor with nothing more than a rock.
“A confederate sailor looked up through the gunport of the Tennessee and looked at Commander Marchand who is the commanding officer of the Lackawanna and yelled you Yankee so and so and John Smith’s hearing that ran to his commanding officer’s aid took a holy stone and through it through the gun port of the Tennessee and hit the Confederate with it and he was awarded the Medal of Honor for that.”
More than 40 percent of all Congressional Medal of Honor Awards were given out during the Civil War. The United States military may be more selective today on which soldiers it honors, but Edwin Combs says it’s important to remember that all historical events take place in their own time and context.
“When you look at experience of combat in the Civil War, I think sure you can compare it to the experience of combat in any other conflict. It’s fighting one way or the other; it may be in the context of its own times but it’s still the use of violence and harnessing it in some way.”
Be sure to join us this Friday at 7 pm, as APR news will present a documentary about the Battle of Mobile Bay, titled “Damn The Torpedoes”