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