Fought with Farragut and then Got a Medal

Philadelphia Inquirer, 22 May 1898

The only colored man in the United States who has ever received a naval medal of honor is a Philadelphian. His name is John Henry Lawson, and he resides on Lombard street, near Sixth.

Although Mr. Lawson was only in the service of the government for a little over one year he has received two first-class medals for his great bravery while on board the flagship Hartford, under Admiral D. G. Farragut during the fierce battle between the Hartford and the ram Tennessee in Mobile Bay, August 9 1864.

Although 70 years of age, Mr. Lawson is still hale and hearty and in full possession of all his mental faculties. His recollection of Farragut's historic fight, which is at the moment of great interest, being recalled on all sides in connection with Commodore Dewey's great victory off Manila, is quite vivid.

Mr. Lawson's story of his adventures in this connection is as follows:

"When a boy, after attending school in Philadelphia, where i was born, I went to sea as a cook's steward, serving some years on a number of private yachts and coasting steamers.

"Early in December of 1863 I left my wife and five children at home and enlisted in the navy as a ward steward under Rear Admiral Farragut, on his flagship Hartford. On the 18th of the following December, I received an honorable discharge.

"It was a long time after that before I knew I had done anything during my service to deserve a medal, and I can now say that I only tried to do my duty and did not set out for fame and glory. So when I heard in 1891 I was to get a naval medal of honor, I just sat down and wrote to Washington to find out what I had done to be honored, as I thought my friends were putting up a joke on me, and here are the letters I received in reply." The first paper that Mr. Lawson displayed reads as follows:

"Navy Department
"Washington, June 16, 1891.
"Sir: Agreeable to your request of the 11th instant, I herewith enclose an extract from the report of Captain Drayton, dated August 9 1864, recommending you for a medal of honor. Very respectfully
"Secretary of the Navy."

The other document contains the following paragraph from Captain Drayon's report:

"Flagship Hartford
"Mobile Bay, August 9 1864.
"Sir: I beg leave to call your attention to the conduct of the following petty officers and others of this vessel during the action of the 5th instant, which, I think, entitles them to the medal of honor...

"John Lawson, landsman, was one of the six men stationed at the shell-whip on the berth deck. A shell killed or wounded the whole number. Lawson was wounded on the leg, and thrown with great violence against the side of the ship, but as soon as he recovered himself, although begged to go below, he refused and went back to the shell-whip, where he remained during the action. Very respectfully, your obedient servant.

"P. DRAYTON, Captain."
"Countersigned by D. G. FARRAGUT, Rear-Admiral."

"One thing that I remember most distinctly," says Lawson, "s that it was a terrible life or death fight for us. My post of duty being in the shell-whip, I was naturally in the heat of the battle, and most of the time the shells were flying around me thick as bumble bees in a clover field. In a very short time after the fight began our decks were covered with the dead and dying. I was wounded in the leg and pretty badly hurt. For a time after I was hit I remained unconscious, but as soon as I waked up I started for my post of duty. Several of the officers, seeing that I was badly hurt, wanted me to go below, but I said no, I would rather die fighting. So they let me have my way, and I kept right along firing away for all I was worth, and remained at my post until the battle was over. Admiral Farragut and Captain Drayton were right above me in the rigging, where they had gone to get above the smoke which hung around the decks, and I think perhaps they saw that although I was badly wounded that I still kept on at my work and remembered it afterwards, and that is how I got my medal."