Medal of Honor: Landsman Thomas E. Corcoran, USS Cincinnati

At 12.20 pm on 27th May 1863, Admiral David Dixon Porter sent a brief message to General William Tecumseh Sherman. It stated simply ‘Cincinnati is sunk.’ Sherman already knew, as he had witnessed the luckless ships final moments. He replied to Porter at 2.15 pm: ‘The boat ran close to the batteries, rounded upstream, caught several shots under her stern. She sunk to the level of her upper deck. I have sent men to relieve and guide them out.’ The final moments of the stricken vessel had been chaos as she sank into the depths of the Mississippi. For wounded men and the crew’s non-swimmers, there seemed little prospect of survival. Their only hope lay with a small group of their shipmates, led by Dubliner Thomas E. Corcoran. (1)

Landsman Thomas E. Corcoran (Deeds of Valor)

Landsman Thomas E. Corcoran (Deeds of Valor)

Thomas E. Corcoran was born in Dublin on 12th October, 1839. He enlisted in the naval service on 6th October 1862, and was assigned as a Landsman to the river gunboat the USS Cincinnati, part of the Western Gunboat Flotilla. It was not his first time in the service- the New York resident had served on the USS North Carolina and the US Frigate Santee earlier in the war. His 1862 enlistment return noted that he was 24 years of age, 5 foot 6 inches in height, with gray eyes, dark hair and a fair complexion. (2)

In May of 1863 Corcoran and his comrades were given a tough assignment by their Admiral. They were to form part of a gunboat attack on Confederate batteries at Vicksburg, with the intention of clearing the way for an advance by General Sherman’s land-based infantry. General Ulysses S. Grant was besieging the Mississippi town, and had already seen two general assaults on the Rebel positions repulsed. It was hoped that the Cincinnati and her fellow ships could make a decisive contribution to a breakthrough at the ‘Gibraltar of the South.’ (3)

Lieutenant George M. Bache was the commander of the USS Cincinnati on 27th May 1863. In preparation for her run on the Vicksburg batteries, her guns were moved to the landward side and logs and hay were packed about the boat to provide it with extra protection. She set out towards the town at around 7 am, steaming slowly towards her destination. While still at extreme range, the Confederate gun known as ‘Whistling Dick’ began to fire on them, but to no effect. By 8.30 am the Cincinnati was in position and steamed at full speed for her target. She quickly came under harrowing fire from the Confederate batteries. Shell after shell struck home, hitting first the magazine, then the starboard tiller. Lieutenant Bache remembered how the plunging shots from the hills went ‘entirely through our protection- hay, wood and iron.’ Another shot penetrated the magazine, and water began to flood in. Further missiles struck the pilot house and two more smashed into the ship below the water-line. Within minutes the decks were strewn with the dead and dying- with his boat sinking, Bache had no option but to retreat upriver and attempt to escape the murderous fire. (4)

USS Cincinnati in 1862-1863 (US Naval Historical Center Photo #NH 63211)

USS Cincinnati in 1862-1863 (US Naval Historical Center Photo #NH 63211)

The Lieutenant sought desperately for somewhere to beach the Cincinnati, hoping to save the boat and also the men on-board. However she was going against the current, and could only make an agonizingly slow 3 miles an hour. It seemed the crew’s luck was in when they appeared to gain the bank, moving close enough to throw a plank ashore. However, as they desperately tried to tie the vessel to a tree the rope suddenly gave way, and the ship slipped back into deep water. With her fate no sealed, the Cincinnati began to go down as the Confederate fire continued. The small boats which the crew might have relied upon to save themselves had been destroyed, and Bache had little option but to give the order to abandon ship. Those who could swim attempted to save themselves, but even men making for shore were not safe, as two shells plunged into the water, costing yet more men their lives. (5)

Lieutenant Bache nailed the colors to the mast as the boat went down. He was one of those unable to swim, and he must have considered his prospects for survival slim. All this time Landsman Corcoran had remained at his gun, and it was only now that he left his post. Along with fellow Irishman Seaman Martin McHugh, Scottish Boatswain’s Mate Henry Dow and Seaman Thomas Jenkins, the Dubliner decided to do all he could to save those who could not swim ashore themselves. Each man began swimming over and back between the ship and the shore, saving as many sailors as possible. With this completed, they then dashed into the bowels of the Cincinnati to try to get wounded men onto the upper deck, where they feverishly began repairing one of the severely damaged wooden boats. They succeeded in floating them ashore, their exertions saving the lives of a further six of their comrades. The bravery and ingenuity of Corcoran and his companions saved the lives of many of the crew; they managed not only to get many of the wounded off the boat, but also rescued Lieutenant Bache. (6)

Portrayal of Corcoran and his comrades swimming back and forth to the Cincinnati saving as many men as possible (Deeds of Valor)

Portrayal of Corcoran and his comrades swimming back and forth to the stricken Cincinnati saving as many men as possible (Deeds of Valor)

The USS Cincinnati sank in over 5 m of water, taking a number of men with her. The action cost the lives of at least 19 men killed, drowned or mortally injured, with a further 14 wounded and one man captured. The Union plan had failed, and the siege of Vicksburg would drag on until the towns eventual capitulation on 4th July. Despite the result, none other than General Sherman commented on the impressive efforts of the gunboat, stating: ‘the style in which the Cincinnati engaged the batteries elicited universal praise, and I deplore the sad result as much as any one could.’ (7)

Corcoran and his three comrades along with Scottish Quartermaster Thomas Hamilton, were awarded the Medal of Honor for their actions on 27th May. The Dubliner received his medal on 10th July 1863. His citation read: ‘Served on board the U.S.S. Cincinnati during the attack on the Vicksburg batteries and at the time of her sinking. Engaging the enemy in a fierce battle, the Cincinnati, amidst an incessant fire of shot and shell, continued to fire her guns to the last, though so penetrated by shellfire that her fate was sealed. Serving bravely during this action, Corcoran was conspicuously cool under the fire of the enemy, never ceasing to fight until this proud ship went down, “her colors nailed to the mast.”‘ Thomas Corcoran later went on to serve with the USS Lexington and after the war returned to New York, where he married Mary Shalloon, from Luggacurran, Co. Laois. He spent his latter years working as a painter, taking pride in the occasional Medal of Honor events which he had the opportunity to attend. He died on 12th March 1904 and is buried in Calvary Cemetery, Queens County, New York. (8)

(1) Official Records: 40-41; (2) Jones 1897: 679-680, Naval Enlistment: 1862, Beyer and Keydel 1902: 46; (3) Beyer and Keydel 1902: 46; (4) Official Records 38-39, 42; (5) Beyer and Keydel 1902: 48, Official Records: 42; (6) Beyer and Keydel 1902: 48-49; (7) Official Records: 42-44 (8) Broadwater 2007: 53, Congressional Medal of Honor Society, Navy Widows Pension Files;

References & Further Reading

Beyer, Walter F. and Keydel, Oscar F. 1902. Deeds of Valor: How America’s Heroes Won The Medal of Honor: Volume 2

Broadwater, Robert P. 2007. Civil War Medal of Honor Recipients

Congressional Medal of Honor Society

Jones, J. W. 1897. The Story of American Heroism: Thrilling Narratives of Personal Adventures During the Civil War

Naval Enlistment Weekly Returns 1855-1891

Navy Survivor’s Certificates

Navy Widows’ Pension File for Thomas E. Corcoran

Official records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Series 1, Volume 25. Naval Forces on Western Waters (May 18, 1863 – February 29, 1864)

Thomas E. Corcoran Find A Grave Memorial

Civil War Trust Siege of Vicksburg Page

Vicksburg National Military Park

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Categories: Battle of Vicksburg, Dublin, Medal of Honor

Author:Damian Shiels

I am an archaeologist based in Ireland, specialising in conflict archaeology.

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8 Comments on “Medal of Honor: Landsman Thomas E. Corcoran, USS Cincinnati”

  1. Paula Hurst
    April 18, 2012 at 2:00 pm #

    Hello Damian, I thought you might be interested in a follow-up to your excellent article about Thomas Corcoran and the men who received the Medal of Honor along with him for their heroism on board the USS Cincinnati. Martin McHugh moved to Danville, Illinois at the end of the war; his mother and sister were already living here at that time. Martin married a widow named Catherine Griffen Ryan and they had four daughters. Martin supported his family by working as a coal miner and never learned to read or write. His obituary says “he delighted to show his friends the gold medal that President Lincoln had given him for heroism”. When he died, although he could have been buried at the National Cemetery here in town, his wish was to lie in consecrated ground at the Catholic Cemetery (St Patrick, now named Resurrection). So he has been in an unmarked grave for 107 years since his death in February of 1905. This Saturday, April 21, Martin’s old parish is holding a celebration to honor him and to unveil a medal of honor marker for both him and his wife Catherine which was donated by the government when no living descendants could be found. His story came to light after the county clerk’s office was contacted a year and a half ago by the Medal of Honor Historical Society as they tried to update their files. I’m proud to say that this hero is finally receiving the recognition he deserves.

    • April 25, 2012 at 4:09 pm #

      Hi Paula,

      Many thanks for your kind words and for passing on this information- apologies for the delay in getting back to you on it as I have been away for a few days. It is fantastic news to hear of the efforts that have gone into remembering him and of his worthy remembrance, I wish I could have been there. I would dearly love to see any photos of the event or the marker if you know of any? It would be great to share them with the readers of the site if there were any. Thanks again for passing on these details.

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

      • Paula Hurst
        April 25, 2012 at 8:47 pm #

        Hello Damian, I have several photos posted on FB. Can you give me some idea on how to post them to you/your website?

      • April 26, 2012 at 11:51 am #

        Hi Paula,

        Many thanks for that- I will drop you a direct message regarding it!

        Kind Regards,

        Damian.

  2. Paula Hurst
    April 23, 2012 at 9:17 pm #

    As a follow-up message, the ceremony on Saturday was lovely with about 300 people in attendance.

    • April 25, 2012 at 4:11 pm #

      Hi Paula,

      What a fantastic turnout! It is heartwarming to see so many people interested in honouring one of these men- many thanks for letting us know about it.

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Medal of Honor: Seaman Martin McHugh Remembered | Irish in the American Civil War - May 5, 2012

    [...] recent post told the story of Landsman Thomas E. Corcoran, a Dubliner who received the Congressional Medal of [...]

  2. Irish-Born Medal of Honor Project | Irish in the American Civil War - December 30, 2012

    [...] Corcoran, Thomas E. [...]

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