Know Your Military

Medal of Honor Monday: Navy Coxswain John G. Morrison

July 15, 2019 | BY Katie Lange

I imagine it's hard to keep your composure while your ship is being attacked, but that's exactly what Navy Coxswain John G. Morrison did during the Civil War, and it earned him the Medal of Honor.

Morrison was born in Ireland sometime between 1836-1842 — online records reflect a few possible dates, so it's not clear — but in 1855, he immigrated to a town called Lansingburgh in upstate New York, outside Albany. According to the New York State Military Museum, he became a brushmaker, a trade his sister and her husband worked at in Ireland. But he wanted more.

A man with a mustache wearing a wide-brimmed hat and Navy shirt looks at the camera.
John G. Morrison
Civil War Navy Coxswain John G. Morrison.
Photo By: Navy
VIRIN: 610422-N-ZZ999-893

Morrison joined the U.S. Navy on July 14, 1857, and was assigned to the USS Wabash, a steam screw frigate. The ship was sent to Panama, where its crew captured an infamous American mercenary, William Walker, who had led expeditions into Latin America to try to establish English colonies under his control. 

Morrison was discharged when the ship returned home, but he quickly reenlisted and was assigned to the USS Relief, a supply ship that returned him to Panama for duty. Once again, he was discharged when he returned home to New York in January 1859.

Never one to avoid conflict, he enlisted in the 30th New York Volunteer Infantry on April 24, 1861, shortly after Fort Sumter, South Carolina, was attacked by the Confederates. The Civil War had begun. 

A ship covered in iron with two flags, two smokestacks and several sailors standing on it sails down a river.
River Gunboat
The Union ironclad river gunboat USS Carondelet patrols a river in the western theater of the Civil War.
Photo By: Navy
VIRIN: 620715-N-ZZ999-019C

Morrison was sent to Washington, where he volunteered to serve in the western theater of war. He was put aboard the USS Carondelet, an ironclad river gunboat that took part in the campaign against Vicksburg, Mississippi, and its eventual siege. The town was the last Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi River of which Union forces were trying to gain control. 

On July 15, 1862, Morrison and his Carondelet shipmates were part of a Union scouting force probing up the Yazoo River when they spotted the Confederate ironclad ram CSS Arkansas. The rebel ship was heading south to Vicksburg to support the Confederate cause. The Carondelet and surrounding ships obviously didn't want it to reach its destination, so they attempted to form a blockade. 

It didn't work well.

An ironclad gunboat billowing smoke or steam rams through a waterway surrounded by an enemy gunboat, a tall ship and another ship. Water is splashing up where ammo has hit he river.
Billowing Smoke
Confederate ironclad gunboat CSS Arkansas runs through the Union fleet above Vicksburg, Miss., July 15, 1862.
Photo By: Naval History and Heritage Command
VIRIN: 620715-N-ZZ999-150C

Carondelet was badly damaged in the ensuing fight and forced ashore, with several of its crew members wounded or killed. But during the melee, Morrison managed to make it to the ship's guns and hit the Arkansas broadside as it passed. His presence of mind in such dire circumstances to continue the fight encouraged his shipmates and impressed his commander. It also earned him the newly minted Medal of Honor. 

The siege of Vicksburg divided the Confederacy and became one of the Union's most successful campaigns of the war. 

Morrison later served on the USS Lafayette and, after being discharged a third time, reenlisted for a fourth stint, this time with the 21st New York Cavalry in September 1864. He continued serving in this capacity until the end of the war. 

Morrison died in June 1897. To honor his service, the World War II ship USS Morrison was named for him. His diary was also donated to the Naval Historical Foundation in the 1950s. It currently resides in the Naval Historical Center Library at the Washington Navy Yard.

This article is part of a weekly series called "Medal of Honor Monday," in which we highlight one of the more than 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the U.S. military's highest medal for valor.