The First Marine to Earn the Medal of Honor: John Freeman Mackie
Since the American Civil War, 297 Marines have been awarded the Medal of Honor. The very first Marine to earn this prestigious decoration was John Freeman Mackie.
On May 15, 1862, Corporal. Mackie was aboard the U.S.S. Galena during the battle of Drewry’s Bluff. The Galena was part of a Union navy flotilla which included four other ships. Their attack targeted the Confederate's Fort Darling. According to navalhistory.org, this fort, “Guarded the river entrance to the Confederate capital and was of tremendous strategic importance to the rebel cause.” The guns of Fort Darling overpowered nearly all of the ships that belonged to the Union’s flotilla. Four of the five ships were unable to continue their attack, leaving the Galena to fight alone for over four hours.
A wash drawing of the U.S.S. Galena by R.G. Skerrett, 1898. Skerrett's drawing is a depiction of the ship, "As she appeared while serving on the James River, Virginia, circa mid-1862." (Photo: americancivilwar.com)
As the sole remaining vessel, the Navy History Blog writes, “Confederate rounds from the fort repeatedly penetrated Galena’s armor plating and caused a significant number of casualties.” Confederate Marines took up positons in rifle pits on the nearby riverbank and were a constant threat to any exposed personnel on the Galena.
A painting of Confederate troops at Fort Darling, firing at Union Gunboats. (Photo: National Park Service)
According to his Medal of Honor citation, Cpl. Mackie, “Fearlessly maintained his musket fire against the rifle pits along the shore and, when ordered to fill vacancies at guns caused by men wounded and killed in action, manned the weapon with skill and courage.” A Confederate artillery shell exploded directly on the gun deck of the Galena. It managed to hit one of the ships 100 pound Parrot guns. The blast killed nearly all of the gun crew. Acting off of his decisive leadership, Mackie's men responded instantly by clearing away the casualties and debris. They also managed to take control of the weapon and kept it in action against the weathering Confederate fire. An article on the official website of the United States Marine Corps adds, "Mackie and his provisional gun crews were then credited with destroying at least one of the fort's casements."
Once the Galena ran out of ammunition, its commander moved the ship down the river and out of the range of Fort Darling. During the course of the battle, the Galena, “Had been hit dozens of times by solid shot.” 12 sailors and one Marine lost their lives. Another 11 men were wounded.
"Photograph looking forward along the ship's port side, shortly after her 15 May 1862 action with Confederate batteries at Drewry's Bluff." There is a plugged hole on the bottom left from an enemy shot that hit near the water line during the battle. (Photo: americancivilwar.com)
Mackie was promoted to the rank of sergeant following his steadfast courage during the battle of Drewry’s Bluff. He was awarded the Medal of Honor on July 10, 1863. Over the course of the Civil War, Mackie took part in 16 naval engagements. The Naval History Blog also writes that he, “Was in dozens of skirmishes in his role as a Marine assigned to Union navy ships.” After four years of continuous service, Mackie was honorably discharged from the Marine Corps on August 23, 1865.
John Mackie and a Civil War Era Medal of Honor. (Photo: Marine Corps Association)
Full Medal of Honor Citation: "On board the U.S.S. Galena in the attack on Fort Darling at Drewry’s Bluff, James River, on 15 May 1862. As enemy shellfire raked the deck of his ship, Corporal Mackie fearlessly maintained his musket fire against the rifle pits along the shore and, when ordered to fill vacancies at guns caused by men wounded and killed in action, manned the weapon with skill and courage.”