Of all the Naval and Marine Medals of Honor awarded during the American Civil War, a little over 15% were earned by men born in Ireland. But being recognised for wartime valor didn’t necessarily put bread on the table during the post-war years. Despite their actions, many Medal of Honor recipients did not get an easy ride when it came to claiming a pension. Such was the case for Wexford native Hugh Molloy, who received the Medal of Honor for actions aboard USS Fort Hindman in Louisiana. He was not alone. Another seeking a pension was his shipmate James K.L. Duncan, who earned a Medal of Honor for the same engagement. Intriguingly, both old comrades swore depositions on behalf of the other almost 30 years after they had fought so bravely shoulder to shoulder. These depositions provide an insight into their own experience of these Medal of Honor actions, and of the physical cost which they bore for the remainder of their lives.
In late February 1864 six boats of the Union Mississippi River Squadron set out on a mission on the Red, Black and Ouachita rivers. Their aim was to disrupt Confederate troop concentrations near the town Harrisonburg, Louisiana. The fleet flagship was the USS Fort Hindman, a steamer which had been converted into what was known as a “tin clad”, described by James Duncan as “1/2 inch iron spiked onto 2 inch poplar or pine back.” On 1st March, near Trinity, the fleet was engaged by Rebel batteries and infantry firing from the riverbanks. Pressing through the fire, the sailors continued forward towards Harrisonburg, but the enemy chose to follow them. The next morning they found themselves once again staring down the barrels of Rebel 12-pounders, which concentrated their fire on the Hindman. Not designed to withstand artillery barrage, the projectiles quickly began to cause considerable damage. Within half an hour she was struck by some 27 missiles, one disabling her starboard engine. As she careened about the river, another shot flew through the thin armour near the Hindman’s No.1 Gun, mortally wounding the first sponger, who dropped his sponge outside of the vessel. One of his comrades working the piece was Hugh Molloy, a 22-year-old Co. Wexford native who had enlisted as a Landsman in Chicago the previous year. Molloy instantly leapt out into the forecastle to recover the sponge, in doing so fully exposing himself to both artillery and musket fire. Remarkably, he chose to stay outside while he sponged and loaded the gun, somehow avoiding being struck by the enemy. It was an action that earned the Irish immigrant the Medal of Honor, which was awarded on 16th April 1864. (1)
Almost as soon as Hugh Molloy had regained the interior of the Hindman, another projectile slammed into the boat, bursting the muzzle of the gun beside Molloy’s. The explosion ignited one of the ship’s cartridges, which was then in the muzzle waiting to be rammed home. Another of the crew, James K.L. Duncan, leapt towards the burning cartridge, yanking it from the barrel. Dashing to the port, he threw the deadly time bomb outside just in time. As he did so it exploded in the air, flinging Duncan backwards. The Pennsylvanian recalled:
When I regained consciousness after the explosion of the cartridge I looked about me in surprise, for there were the men rushing about, loading and firing the guns, but all was inaudible to me. Upon recovering from my amazement I became convinced that I was deaf. This belief was confirmed by the surgeon, who pronounced the drum of my right war completely destroyed, and the other temporarily impaired. (2)
Along with Hugh Molloy, James K. L. Duncan would receive the Medal of Honor on 16th April 1864. The two were joined in the award by William P. Johnston, another crewman who had exhibited extraordinary courage that day. After their service, these men went back to their daily lives. In Hugh Molloy’s case, that meant returning to his pre-war occupation as a barman in Chicago, while James Duncan began to pursue medical studies. (3)
The wartime recognition these men had received for their valor often did not translate into post-war support for ex-servicemen. Both Molloy and Duncan suffered long-term injuries during the action on 2nd March 1864, but they had to fight hard in their efforts to receive a pension. Just as they had supported each other in the fighting of 1864, the two old comrades also chose to support each other in their petitions to the Pension Bureau almost 30 years later. On 28th April 1891, James gave a statement in support of Hugh’s pension application, outlining the events aboard the Hindman that day. A little less than three months later, Hugh returned the favour, sharing his recollections of the action with the examiners assessing James’s claim. (4)
Both Hugh Molloy’s and James K.L. Duncan’s statements in support of each other’s applications are included below. The first document is Hugh Molloy’s full statement, dated 13th March 1891, which contains lots of interesting detail regarding his life, service, and injuries.
Deposition of Hugh Molloy 13th March 1891
I am 49 years of age, occupation, stock keeper, residence and address 446 Loomis St…I entered the United States Navy as Landsman at Chicago, Ills. about June 15th 1863. I went to Cairo, Ills. and was placed on board the receiving ship “Clara Dolsen” I remained on board of her a week or two. Was next assigned on board the “Conestoga” at Cairo, Ills. Only remained on her a few days then transferred to “Fort Hindman”. I remained on “Hindman” until discharged somewhere round the mouth of the Red River June 21st 1864. I noticed when my discharge was handed to me my name was spelled Melloy instead of Molloy. The latter is the proper way to spell it. I was born in Ireland. At date of enlistment I was in my twenty second year. My occupation was bar tender and clerk. I was about six feet and a quarter of an inch high without my shoes.
I came to America from Ireland in 1860. I located at Joliet Ills. and remained there until 1862. I worked at farming for a Mr. Dorsey (dead). I was not ill before service, did not have medical treatment before service. Was not ruptured before service. Cannot name doctor who examined me at date of enlistment. I was stripped of my clothing and examined thoroughly. Cannot give name of comrades who saw me examined. I claim pension for wounds of my left ankle and leg as the result of a bursting shell, and rupture of the right side as the result of heavy lifting.
While engaged with the enemy and serving on board the U.S.S. “Fort Hindman” at Harrisonburg, La. March 2d 1864 as First Loader on gun number one, a shell exploded which had been thrown by one of the enemies guns quite near me causing many splinters to enter my left leg below the knee. The powder and small particles of iron were driven into my leg. The shell first struck the right of the port hole breaking through the casement in front of which I was standing at the time. I do not know that pieces of the shell struck my leg but I am confident that the contents of the shell which appeared to be like little pieces of boiler iron entered my leg, Shortly after the shell struck the steamer I felt something warm in my shoe and discovered that my leg was bleeding. I continued on duty until the end of the fight. After the fight I washed my leg and tied a rag about it. I had no medical treatment nor was I in the sick bay. My leg was sore during the balance of my service but I was not off duty. The names of comrades on gun number one at date I was wounded were John Kelly (think he is dead) Pat Ryan (dead) Walter P. Johnston (address unknown). Cannot recalled others. I claim that my rupture of the right side was incurred during the same fight when my wound of the left leg was incurred. The rupture was the result of lifting heavy shells. The First Sponger (Pat Conroy, address unknown) being badly wounded I had to do the work without assistance. I discovered my rupture shortly after the fight, just as soon as I had a chance to stand squarely on my feet. I had a peculiar feeling of weakness in my right groin I felt at that point which had the feeling of being a small ball about the size of a hickory nut which could be pushed back with the hand. I tied my handkerchief about my groin with another handkerchief, first against the rupture to hold it back. I did not wear a truss when in service. I had no medical treatment in service for rupture. Was not excused from duty in consequence of rupture. My left leg was mostly affected on the inside and shin. I had no one to help me pick out the splinters at the time, I picked the splinters out…I first noticed that my leg would swell and troubled with varicose veins when in the service. The varicose veins on my left leg below my knee have bothered me in each year since discharge, especially when I stand too long at a time on my leg.
There is an order I hand you which is an official document from the Navy Department (order reads as follows: Navy Dept. April 16. 1864. General Order No. 32. Hugh Molloy, Ordinary Seaman, U.S.S. Fort Hindman. During the engagement hear Harrisonburg, La. Mar. 2d 1864. A shell pierced the bow casement on the right of Gun No. 1, mortally wounding the First Sponger who dropped his sponge out of the port on the forecastle. Molloy instantly jumped from the port to the fore castle, recovered the sponge, and sponged and loaded the gun while outside, exposed to a heavy fire of musketry.) The above is a correct copy of printed circular handed to me. Embraced in the same order, there are several other seamen mentioned for bravery. Seaman also has in his possession a medal granted by special Act of Congress [the Medal of Honor] which has printed on the reverse side these words “For Personal Valor. To Hugh Molloy, U.S. Steamer “Fort Hindman”.
Immediately after discharge I returned to Chicago, Ills. In July 1864 I bought a truss at Bliss and Sharp, druggists. I do not know where they are now. The same year a doctor- Beech (dead) treated me. My left leg was sore and I kept it tied with a linen cloth. Went to Rush Medical College in 1864. Had no treatment, was advised to procure a rubber bandage which I did. Wore it for a while but did not like it as my leg was bound too tightly. I have not had medical treatment for my leg since discharge.
I have resided at Chicago Ills. since discharge except 1891 and 92 when in St. Joe[sph] MO. I have worked in wholesale houses in Chicago since discharge. Have never been able to perform a heavy manual labor on account of my left leg and rupture of right side. (5)
Deposition of James K.L. Duncan in support of Hugh Molloy, 28th April 1891
I am personally acquainted with Hugh Molloy, having first met him in Chicago in June 1863 and knew him throughout our service. I enlisted June 26th 1863 as O.S. [Ordinary Seaman] and was assigned to U.S.S. Ft. Hindman about July between 5th and 15th 1863. I served in the same ship until his discharge. I was promoted to Seaman in March 1864 I think.
I do not remember any serious sickness [during Hugh’s service] upon part of claimant, but he was wounded, I think in the left leg, during an engagement with [the] enemy on the 2d day of March 1864. Claimant was injured this way: He was First Loader for Gun No. 1 and I was First Sponger for No. 2 gun. Our battery was called the bow battery and the claimant and myself stood almost side by side during action. During the engagement at Harrisonburgh, La on the date alleged a shell from the enemies guns pierced the walls of the boat near claimant and exploded, causing splinters to pierce the claimant’s left leg. The walls of the boat were protected by about 1/4 of an inch of sheet iron, and the shell in coming through the wall burst off splinters on the inner side, which was composed of about 2 inches of pine or polar wood driving said splinters in the claimants leg. I saw the claimants leg that evening or the next morning, I was an eye witness to the incurrence of the injury. He complained of his leg during the remainder of his service…I cannot say for certain he had a hernia in his right groin. He showed me the hernia at the same time that he showed me the injured leg. How I came to see his injuries after the battle was in this way. We were comparing notes as to the battle and showed each other our injuries. I do not know just how the hernia was incurred, but it developed immediately after the battle. I saw the claimant after discharge in Chicago in 1865 but I do not have as distinct a recollection of any complaints he many have made at that time, as those he made in the service.
Deposition of Hugh Molloy in support of James K.L. Duncan, 23rd July 1891
At the Battle of Harrisonburg La March 2 1864 James KL Duncan was First Sponger of No. 2 gun on the U.S. Steamer Fort Hindman No.13. I was First Loader of No. 1 gun and quiet [sic.] near Duncan. A shell struck he muzzle of No. 2 gun setting fire to cartridge and mortally wounding McNeil Rayburn the First Loader of 2 gun who had just fired it in the gun. Duncan seized it the burning cartridge and threw it overboard, exploding before it landed [in] the water the explosion of the shell destroyed the hearing in his (Duncan’s) right ear and caused him much trouble in the left arm also. In working with him holy stoning decks and other work about the ship I had always to be on his left side so he could hear what I said to him. I met him in Chicago in March 1865 he was then totally deaf in his right ear and was troubled very much in the left one. He was very dizzy at times in stoopin down and raising up quickly would have hol[d] on to something for a mineut or so to keep from falling.
148 Market St
Residence 446 Loomis St. (7)
Eventually both Hugh and James received their pensions. Hugh Molloy passed away on 8th March 1922 and is buried in Calvary Cemetery, Evanston, Illinois. James K.L. Duncan had predeceased him by almost a decade, on 27th March 1913, he is interred in Wood National Cemetery, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
*None of my work on pensions would be possible without the exceptional effort currently taking place in the National Archives to digitize this material and make it available online via Fold3. A team from NARA supported by volunteers are consistently adding to this treasure trove of historical information. To learn more about their work you can watch a video by clicking here.
(1) Hugh Molloy Certificate, Deeds of Valor: 53; (2) Deeds of Valor: 55; (3) Hugh Molloy Certificate, James KL Duncan Certificate; (4) Ibid; (5) Hugh Molloy Certificate; (6) Ibid.; (7) James KL Duncan Certificate;
Navy Survivor’s Certificate 11565 of Hugh Molloy, Ordinary Seaman, USS Fort Hindman.
Navy Survivor’s Certificate 23709 of James K L Duncan, Ordinary Seaman, USS Fort Hindman.
Beyer, Walter F. and Keydel, Oscar F. 1902. Deeds of Valor: How America’s Heroes Won the Medal of Honor. Volume 2.