Of the 3,470 Medals of Honor awarded, 90 have been bestowed to 89 different African American recipients. Of these 89, 16 have been United States Sailors. While the award criteria for the Medal of Honor has become far more stringent since the awards listed below, nonetheless these men earned the nation’s highest and most prestigious military decoration.
For the first time, we have listed these 16 African-American, Navy Medal of Honor recipients together, each with their award citations and, for some, brief biographies. Unfortunately, little is known about some of these brave men, and for some no photographs or images are known to exist.
The first five recipients below were honored with personal, commemorative posters by the Naval Historical Center (now the Naval History and Heritage Command). Note that these posters incorrectly label the award as the “Congressional Medal of Honor,” when, in fact, the official name is simply the “Medal of Honor.” Learn more about the history of the Medal of Honor (and its misconceptions) here.
Eagle-eyed readers may also notice that the first link above, as well as the infographic, report there being 8 African American Sailors to earn the Medal of Honor during the Civil War, while we only list 7 below. The discrepancy is a result of one award being disputed – Mr. Clement Dees was awarded the Medal of Honor but later deserted; his Medal was subsequently rescinded under a still-contested Navy regulation [Washington Post].
Medal of Honor Citation: On board the U.S. Steam Gunboat Marblehead off Legareville, Stono River, 25 December 1863, in an engagement with the enemy on John’s Island. Serving the rifle gun, Blake, an escaped slave, carried out his duties bravely throughout the engagement which resulted in the enemy’s abandonment of positions, leaving a caisson and one gun behind.
Medal of Honor Citation: On board the U.S.S. Brooklyn during successful attacks against Fort Morgan, rebel gunboats and the ram CSS Tennessee (1863) in Mobile Bay, 5 August 1864. Stationed in the immediate vicinity of the shell whips which were twice cleared of men by bursting shells, Mifflin remained steadfast at his post and performed his duties in the powder division throughout the furious action which resulted in the surrender of the prize rebel ram Tennessee and in the damaging and destruction of batteries at Fort Morgan.
Medal of Honor Citation: Served as seaman on board the U.S.S. Kearsarge when she destroyed the Alabama off Cherbourg, France, 19 June 1864. Acting as loader on the No. 2 gun during this bitter engagement, Pease exhibited marked coolness and good conduct and was highly recommended by the divisional officer for gallantry under fire.
Medal of Honor Citation: Served on board the U.S.S. Wyandank during a boat expedition up Mattox Creek, March 17, 1885. Participating with a boat crew in the clearing of Mattox Creek, L/man Anderson carried out his duties courageously in the face of a devastating fire which cut away half the oars, pierced the launch in many places and cut the barrel off a musket being fired at the enemy.
Medal of Honor Citation:Serving on board the U.S.S. Powhatan at Norfolk, 26 December 1872, Noil saved Boatswain J. C. Walton from drowning.
Medal of Honor Citation:On board the U.S.S. Cushing, 11 February 1898. Showing gallant conduct, Atkins attempted to save the life of the late Ens. Joseph C. Breckenridge, U.S. Navy, who fell overboard at sea from that vessel on this date.
William H. Brown was born in 1836 in Baltimore, Maryland. He enlisted in the U.S. Navy from that state and served as a Landsman on board the screw sloop Brooklyn during the United States Civil War. On 5 August 1864, during the Battle of Mobile Bay, Alabama, Brown remained steadfast at his post despite enemy shellfire that killed and wounded many of those around him.
Medal of Honor Citation for William Brown, 1864: On board the U.S.S. Brooklyn during successful attacks against Fort Morgan[,] rebel gunboats and the ram Tennessee in Mobile Bay on 5 August 1864. Stationed in the immediate vicinity of the shell whips which were twice cleared of men by bursting shells, Brown remained steadfast at his post and performed his duties in the powder division throughout the furious action which resulted in the surrender of the prize rebel ram Tennessee and in the damaging and destruction of batteries at Fort Morgan.
Wilson Brown was born in 1841 on Botany Bay Plantation in Natchez, Mississippi. At the outbreak of the Civil War, he was a slave at Carthage Plantation. Brown enlisted with the Union Navy along the banks of the Mississippi River in March of 1863 as contraband. His first shipboard station was as a 3rd Class Boy aboard USS Hartford. During the Hartford’s engagement at the Battle of Mobile Bay on 5 August 1864, Brown and another landsman, John Lawson, were serving on a shell whip crew. The shell whip is a device that transports ammunition powder from the magazine to the firing deck via man power. A Confederate shell exploded near Brown’s crew during the battle killing four of the six men. Both Brown and another man were knocked below deck. Brown was knocked unconscious and broke several ribs along his left side while the man that fell on him died. Lawson was hit with shrapnel in his leg, but was the first to return to the shell whip. After regaining consciousness, Brown returned to his station and resumed his duties with Lawson. For their actions they were awarded the Medal of Honor.
Medal of Honor Citation for Wilson Brown, 1864:On board the flagship U.S.S. Hartford during successful attacks against Fort Morgan, rebel gunboats and the ram CSS Tennessee (1863) in Mobile Bay on 5 August 1864. Knocked unconscious into the hold of the ship when an enemy shellburst 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 the 6 men at this station had been either killed or wounded by the enemy’s terrific fire.
John Lawson was born June 16, 1837. in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He enlisted the Navy from New York in December 1863. On August 5, 1864 during the Battle of Mobile Bay, while serving in a member of USS Hartford‘s berth deck ammunition party, he was seriously wounded after a shell had wounded him in the leg and killed or wounded the rest of his crew. Despite his wounds, he remained at his post and continued to supply the Hartford ‘s guns. John Lawson was one of twelve men who received the Medal of Honor for heroism that day.
Medal of Honor Citation for John Lawson, 1864:On board the flagship U.S.S. Hartford during successful attacks against Fort Morgan, rebel gunboats and the ram Tennessee in Mobile Bay on 5 August 1864. Wounded in the leg and thrown violently against the side of the ship when an enemy shell killed or wounded the 6-man crew as the shell whipped on the berth deck, Lawson, upon regaining his composure, promptly returned to his station and, although urged to go below for treatment, steadfastly continued his duties throughout the remainder of the action.
Medal of Honor Citation for John Johnson, 1872:Serving on board the U.S.S. Adams at the Navy Yard, Mare Island, Calif., 14 November 1879, Johnson rescued Daniel W. Kloppen, a workman, from drowning.
Medal of Honor Citation for William Johnson, 1884:Johnson displayed great coolness and self-possession at the time Comdr. A. F. Crosman and others were drowned and, by extraordinary heroism and personal exertion, prevented greater loss of life.
Medal of Honor Citation for John Smith, 1884:For jumping overboard from the U.S.S. Shenandoah, at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 19 September 1880, and rescuing from drowning James Grady, first class fireman.
Above/Left: This reproduction shows John Davis preventing a powder explosion aboard USS Valley City by covering an open powder cask with his body to protect it from nearby flames, during the attack on Confederates at Elizabeth City, North Carolina on 10 February 1862. Davis received the Medal of Honor for this courageous act. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, from the collections of the Naval History and Heritage Command.
Medal of Honor Citation John Davis, 1884:Served on board the U.S.S. Valley City during action against rebel fort batteries and ships off Elizabeth City, N.C., on 10 February 1862. When a shell from the shore penetrated the side and passed through the magazine, exploding outside the screen on the birth deck, several powder division protection bulkheads were torn to pieces and the forward part of the berth deck set on fire. Showing great presence of mind, Davis courageously covered a barrel of powder with his own body and prevented an explosion, while at the same time passing powder to provide the division on the upper deck while under fierce enemy fire.
Robert Augustus Sweeny is the only African-American sailor to receive two separate Medal of Honor citations.
1st Medal of Honor Citation for Robert Augustus Sweeney, 1881:Serving on board the U.S.S. Kearsarge, at Hampton Roads, Va., 26 October 1881, Sweeney jumped overboard and assisted in saving from drowning a shipmate who had fallen overboard into a strongly running tide.
2nd Medal of Honor Citation for Robert Augustus Sweeney, 1883:Serving on board the U.S.S. Jamestown, at the Navy Yard New York, 20 December 1883, Sweeney rescued from drowning A. A. George, who had fallen overboard from that vessel
Above: Robert Penn‘s heroism in a fireroom accident on board USS Iowa (Battleship # 4) on 20 July 1898, during the Spanish-American War. He received the Medal of Honor for his actions in that incident. Copied from Deeds of Valor, Volume II, page 405, published in 1907 by the Perrien-Keydel Co., Detroit, Michigan.U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph
Medal of honor Citation for Robert Penn, 1898:On board the U.S.S. Iowa off Santiago de Cuba, 20 July 1898. Performing his duty at the risk of serious scalding at the time of the blowing out of the manholegasket on board the vessel, Penn hauled the fire while standing on a board thrown across a coal bucket 1 foot above the boiling water which was still blowing from the boiler.
On March 31, 1901, Seaman Alphonse Girandy was serving on board the USS Petrel in Manila Bay when a fire ignited, eventually taking the life of the ship’s captain. As the fire burned, Girandy fearlessly entered the lower deck of the ship and managed to pull four shipmates to safety. For his actions, Girandy, a Philadelphia citizen, was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Medal of Honor Citation for Alphonse Girandy, 1902:Serving on board the U.S.S. Petrel, for heroism and gallantry, fearlessly exposing his own life to danger for the saving of others, on the occasion of the fire on board that vessel, March 31, 1901