The citations that accompanied Civil War era Medal of Honor awards tend to provide us with precious little detail. Regularly restricted to one or two lines, they often lack description, and do little to transmit the horrors of the sights and sounds that must have accompanied the actions associated with them. Such is certainly the case with the majority of Civil War awards to the Irish-born (for my most up to date list, see here). I recently came across a letter that does much to evoke the abject horror of the scene which one Irish recipient witnessed as he earned his award, at Plymouth, North Carolina in 1864. It certainly adds much to the sanitised mental picture that his citation alone conjours for us. As a result I have reproduced it for the first time in full below.
Young Irish emigrant Patrick Colbert had enlisted in the Union Navy in 1862. His Medal of Honor was earned while serving aboard the USS Commodore Hull. His citation reads as follows:
Served on board the U.S.S. Commodore Hull at the capture of Plymouth, 31 October 1864. Painfully wounded by a shell which killed the man at his side, Colbert, as captain of the forward pivot gun, remained at his post until the end of the action, braving the heavy enemy fire and appearing as cool as if at mere target practice.
Patrick’s citation is more detailed than many from the Civil War, but nonetheless remains somewhat sanitised and scant. He was a young man at the time, having been born in Ireland around the year 1840. He and his family had emigrated to the United States when he was a boy, most probably during the Great Famine. Once in America they settled in Rochester; the future sailor may well be the 10-year-old Pat Colbert recorded with his grandmother, parents and two siblings as living in the city’s Fourth Ward in 1850. There is some possibility that they originally hailed from Dungarvan, Co. Waterford, though more research into this required. When he enlisted aged 21-years he gave his trade as carpenter, though he had also acquired maritime experience. Patrick was exceedingly small, standing only 5 feet 1 1/4 inches tall. He was initially stationed on the receiving ship USS North Carolina before going on to serve aboard the USS Flag from May to October 1862, eventually ending up on the Commodore Hull that November. He stayed on the crew of the converted side-wheel ferryboat until January 1865, and was ultimately discharged the following May.
The 1864 action at Plymouth, North Carolina was part of a successful attempt by Union forces to retake the town they had lost earlier that year. During it, the Commodore Hull and other Federal boats found themselves engaging Confederate shore batteries as they sought to cut of the position via the Roanoke River. Patrick’s commander was Acting Master Francis Josselyn, who later described the ferocity of the fire they faced:
As soon as we sighted the batteries above the town the enemy opened fire from two IX-inch guns, and some light artillery, which was replied to spiritedly by my guns as soon as they could be brought to bear. I then went ahead at full speed, receiving and returning the enemy’s fire with shell, grape, and canister. When within 300 yards of the enemy’s works a heavy musketry fire was poured on my men by infantry in rifle pits and houses, which I answered in the same manner. This fire, though severe, did no damage, as the vessel is well protected by iron plating.
Before passing the upper battery a shell from a IX-inch gun came in over the starboard bow, killing 1 man and wounding 1 at the forward gun, passed through the berth deck and wardroom, cut away the railing around the after hatch and killing 1 man, mortally wounding 2, and 3 slightly, struck the after pivot gun carriage, where it lodged, disabling it for a time. This shell fortunately did not explode. Another shell passed through the vessel, raking her fore and aft, but without doing any damage, except to the officers’ rooms. A third, in passing over the hurricane deck, cut away the guard brace from the forward king-post on the port side and knocked out the bows of the second cutter and the stern of the dingey.
Eventually, the naval actions forced the Confederates to abandon the town, and it was re-occupied by Union forces. At the end of his report, Josselyn singled out a number of men for special mention, and one in particular:
Among the crew I respectfully call to your notice Patrick Colbert, coxswain, captain of the forward pivot gun. His conduct was admirable, and though painfully wounded by a shell which killed a man at his side, he did not leave his post until the end of the action, and appeared as cool as it at mere target practice.
It is apparent that this section of the report formed the basis of Patrick’s Medal of Honor citation, which was awarded in December 1864. But how had he come to the attention of Josselyn? The answer to that lies in the statement of J.O. Johnson, the Executive Officer of the Commodore Hull, who was himself mentioned in Josselyn’s report. Writing for the family more than two decades after the action, he had the following to say:
I was an Acting Master U.S. Navy and was Executive Officer on board the U.S. Gun Boat Commodore Hull at the capture of Plymouth N.C. in October 1864 [I] knew Patrick H. Colbert. He was First Captain of No. 1 Pivot Gun and was wounded in the side by a piece of a shell. The same shell that wounded him killed the Second Captain of the gun. I stood so near at the time that the brains of the Second Captain flew into my face. I more particularly remember this man for seeing that he was wounded I ordered him to go below to the Cockpit for medical treatement but he would not go, but stood by his gun and fought in such a gallant manner that I made official mention of his name to the commanding officer of my ship and he to the proper authorities. See the report of Acting Master Commanding of the Commodore Hull at the capture of Plymouth N.C. October 1864 which can be found in the report of the Hon. Sectretary of the Navy for the year 1864 where you will find the name of Patrick Colbert mentioned as being wounded in the side…I would further state that his widow sent me his Photograph and by that I recognise the brave little man who fought so gallantly on that day whom I had not heard from for 21 years though I have often thought of him.
Late Acting Master U.S.N.
Johnson’s letter reveals something of the intensity of the action at Plymouth. While the official report remarked how the shell from the Confederate 9-inch gun had “killed” one man and wounded another [Patrick] at the forward gun, the letter provides a visceral description of the sailor’s death. The destructive impact of a projectile that size striking a man’s head is terrible to consider, and one can only imagine the shock and nauseating horror his companions felt as the sailor’s brains flew into their faces. It is apparent that even after the passage of more than two decades, it was a moment that remained close to Acting Master Johnson’s thoughts. The unfortunate individual was most likely Coxswain Hugh McMorony (variously also McNaury and McNanamy) who was almost certainly both a fellow Irish American and a likely friend of Patrick. Given the circumstances, it is hard not to wonder if it was Patrick’s ability and determination to carry on despite having just experienced this unimaginable death that most impressed Johnson, especially given he had a legitimate reason to remove himself from the scene. It certainly earned for him his officer’s permanent admiration and respect.
Patrick Colbert returned to Rochester after the war, where he married and went into the cigar and tobacco business with his brother. Whether the mental scars of his experience troubled him we do not know, but the wound he received in his right side certainly did. Within a few years he had developed pulmonary consumption, the doctor stating it was particularly severe in his right lung, near where he had been struck. The Medal of Honor recipient died in Detroit, Michigan on 19th January 1877, when he was around 36-years-old.
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Official Records of the War of the Rebellion
U.S. Naval History & Heritage Command