Brown awarded Medal of Honor nearly 100 years after Civil War

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Medal of Honor is the highest decoration awarded to members of the armed forces for acts of heroism.

It was first authorized for naval enlisted men in 1861 and for the Army’s enlisted men in 1862. By 1863 this honor was later extended to include officers.

Wilson Brown, an enslaved person born in Natchez in August 1861, received this honor during the Civil War.

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Brown grew up on a plantation in Natchez, but in March 1863 he escaped from the plantation and enlisted in the U.S. Navy. He was assigned to the flagship, U.S.S. Hartford where he was trained as a shell-boy with the rank of landsman.

A landsman in the U.S. Navy during the Civil War was the lowest rank in the Navy. It was given to recruits with little or no experience, and who performed menial and unskilled work aboard ship.

The shell-boy was responsible for maintaining the shells for the cannons. This involved keeping the shells clean, seeing that a ready supply of shells were available for battle, maintaining a constant supply of shells during a battle, and the cutting of the fuses the correct length as ordered by the gunner.

It was during the battle of Mobile Bay on Aug. 5, 1864 that Brown proved his mettle and was recognized for his bravery.

At 6 a.m. that morning Admiral David Farragut, with his wooden sloops and four monitors slipped into Mobile Bay. His goal was to destroy the Confederate ironclad ram Tennessee, and three wooden gunboats. The entrance into the bay was narrow, and each side there was a fort, Fort Morgan and Gaines, which opened fire on the Federals.

A fierce naval battle then ensued, which lead to the surrender of the Tennessee and a federal victory. As a result of this victory Confederate blockade running in the Gulf of Mexico ended.

During the battle the Hartford was heavily shelled by Confederate gunboats and the forts and suffered several casualties.

According to the official publication “Medal of Honor, 1861-1949, the Navy” Brown performed the following act of heroism:

“On board the flagship U.S. S. Hartford during successful attacks on Fort Morgan, rebel gunboats, and the ram Tennessee in Mobile on 5 August 1864. Knocked unconscious into the hold of the ship when an enemy shellburst(sic) fatally wounded a man on the ladder above him, BROWN, upon regaining consciousness, promptly returned to the shell whip on the berth deck and zealously continued to perform his duties although 4 of 6 men at his station had been killed or wounded by the enemy’s terrific fire. “

Wilson remained in the Navy until 1865 when he was discharged because of a disability.

He returned to Natchez where he met Lizzie Walker, and to whom he married. They had no children but they did help raise three children, their godchild, the Rev. Benjamin Smith and Cynthia Brown Lewis and Bud Brown.

He was also one of the founders and a deacon of the Clermont Baptist Church on Cemetery Road.

He and his wife, in 1881, purchased land on Cemetery Road where they built a house and a small store and he led a quiet life in Natchez until his death on Jan. 24, 1900, and he was buried at the Natchez National Cemetery.

However, though he had won the Medal of Honor he never received.

It was not until 1956 that he was recognized as a Medal of Honor winner, and it was not until 1982 that his family was presented with the medal.

Clark BURKETT is a historian at Historic Jefferson College.