Orderly Sergeant Christopher Nugent
Medal of Honor Winner at Crystal River, Florida
by David Ekardt
Former Marine Vietnam Veteran
During the Civil War, the Navy
and Marine forces played a key role in the conflict interdicting the flow of
goods and supplies of the Confederacy. Their efforts helped to shorten the war.
One of the Marines involved in this effort, Orderly Christopher Nugent, was
awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions.
Nugent’s service record
shows he joined the Navy as ship’s boy in 1854 at the age of 13. Born in
County Craven Ireland, Nugent was fortunate to be with Commodore Perry when he
made his historic voyage to open relations with Japan. In 1858 when he was
old enough, he joined the Marines and served two enlistments as a Marine.
During the war, he was
assigned to the U.S.S. Fort Henry a
converted ferry boat which was part of the East Gulf Blockading Fleet. The
shallow draft of the vessel allowed it to get into the shallow waters off the
west coast of Florida. There, the ship’s crew raided storehouses on shore,
destroyed salt works that were essential in producing the salt for food
preservation, and capturing blockade runners.
Florida was vital to the
Southern war effort. Its many islands, creeks, rivers and secluded inlets
made it an ideal place to conceal the sloops and schooners that took cotton,
yellow pine, turpentine, salt and cattle to Havana and other ports in the
Caribbean to trade for weapons, gunpowder, medicine and other material critical
to the Confederate cause. It was along the steamy Gulf coast that the Fort Henry and its crew of sailors and
Marines struggled to interdict the supplies and sink the rebel ships before they
could complete their missions.
The Union Navy had the
daunting task of curtailing trade between Florida and the islands but was hard
pressed to provide enough ships for the task. Larger naval vessels could
not come near the shore because of shallow water and reefs. This necessitated
the use of shallow-draft and highly maneuverable vessels such as the Fort
Henry. From the Fort Henry
and ships like her, heavily armed patrols rowed longboats, cutters and launches
into the mangroves and marshes that gave their enemy sanctuary. The
patrols were generally forty-eight hours long. Raiders would search
islands off the mouths of the rivers or wait to pounce on enemy ships as they
worked their way through the reefs. Once spotted, blockade-runners would often
run their ships aground to escape. They would scuttle their ships if they
thought they might be able to return and salvage them, if not, they would be set
Two members of her crew, the
Captain, Brevet Lieutenant E.Y. McCauley and Marine Orderly Sergeant Christopher
Nugent were the driving forces behind the successes of the ship. McCauley’s
aggressive pursuit of the enemy, and Nugent’s successes leading boat
parties conducting raids, earned the ship quite a reputation.
During the time the ship was
on station with the East Gulf Blockading Squadron, it scored numerous victories.
Official records show she captured five sloops, five schooners, and several
smaller vessels. She destroyed others. Captured vessels were taken to Key
West where they and their cargoes were sold. Crew members had a powerful
incentive to capture enemy shipping; they received a share of the prize money.
Marines and sailors
participated in several on shore raids, and several small boat actions, which
included destruction of a two-gun rebel shore battery.
Acting Lieutenant E.Y.
McCauley assumed command of the Fort Henry on May 2 1862 in Baltimore,
Md. He commanded the vessel until 23 November 1863 when he was promoted to
Lieutenant Commander and transferred to the gunship, U.S.S. Tioga.
pursuit of blockade-runners was recognized in a communiqué from Acting Rear
Admiral Theodorus Bailey who wrote:
“Sir: Since my last
communication dated May 28 and numbered 186 the following prizes have been made
by vessels of this squadron:
May 14—A flatboat, with 225 bushels of corn, by the Fort Henry.
May 22—Sloop Isabella,
no cargo, by the Fort Henry.
May 24—Sloop Fashion,
49 bales of cotton, by the Fort Henry.
May 31—Schooner Echo,
125 bales of cotton, by the Sunflower.
June 1—A scow, 56 bales of
cotton, by Fort Henry.
June 3—A lighter, 39 bales
of cotton, by the Fort Henry and Beauregard.
June 6—Schooner Statesman,
50-75 bales of cotton, by the Tahoma.
June 13—Pushmatakaha, some
loose cotton, by the Sunflower.
You will perceive by the above
list that the Fort Henry has displayed much activity. The prizes made by
her have been the result of boat expeditions which have been out constantly and
which have been attended with enterprise and incident.”
McCauley’s valor was also
recognized in a later letter of commendation to Acting Lieutenant W. Budd
written by Acting Rear Admiral Bailey. Bailey wrote:
“Sir: I am much gratified
with the zeal you have displayed and the good judgment you have shown in the
affair at Apalachicola, by which you so completely frustrated the plans of the
rebels. It was this zeal in Lieutenant-Commander McCauley when he commanded the Fort
Henry that made that vessel the terror of the coast for fifty miles.”
McCauley kept his men busy
working the islands around the mouths of the creeks and rivers along the Gulf.
Rebel ships had to slowly pick their way through the shallow, reef-filled
waters, which gave the men in the launches time to catch up. Quite often, they
would act on intelligence reports from Unionist residents about incoming and
McCauley personally led one of
the most grueling boat actions. With seven boats from the Fort Henry, the
Sagamore and the St Lawrence, he attacked Bayport Harbor. The
sailors and Marines of the raiding party anchored off the mouth of the harbor at
one a.m. When dawn came, they put all their strength into rowing the two miles
to attack. The tide was against them, and contrary winds slowed their progress,
giving the Confederates plenty of time to move their ships from the outer harbor
into the sheltered inner harbor except for a sloop and schooner. Part of
the attacking force made their way towards the sloop carrying their boats across
the flats at the mouth of the harbor. They seized the sloop loaded with corn,
and set it ablaze. Meanwhile, the other boats engaged a two-gun battery and a
company of riflemen dug into firing pits along the shore. The gun battle raged
between boats and shore until a shell cleared the shore battery. Two of the boat
howitzers ripped loose of the fittings during the battle. As the boats made
progress toward the schooner, they saw the enemy had set it on fire, destroying
the ship and the three hundred bales of cotton on board.
Unable to go into the inner
harbor to destroy other ships, they set off to hit other hiding places to the
south. For the next five days, the men rowed under a blazing sun and rainsqualls
for seventy-five miles in search of the enemy.
The second night, they rowed
and baled all night when their small boat armada was hit with severe storms.
Each time they put in to shore to search the Chassahowitzka River, Crystal
River, Homosassa River, Withlacochee River and the Waccassassa River, they found
that fast riders from Bayport had forewarned the locals. From there, they
rowed out into the Gulf to rendezvous with the Fort Henry, and head back to the Suwannee
River where they searched and destroyed navigation markers.
One of the most successful
boat crews of the Fort Henry was the
one commanded by Orderly Sergeant Christopher Nugent. After one engagement
the Fort Henry captured a sloop and found it desirable to keep one of the boats
of the sloop to add to their small boat force. This allowed them to increase the
number of patrols. McCauley gave the boat to Nugent to repair and put to good
use. He spoke highly of his skill and professionalism. McCauley wrote;
“Orderly Sergeant C. Nugent
superintended the work with skill and zeal. On the 11th instant she was manned
by 6 of the guard of this vessel and sent in charge of Sergeant Nugent to the
Withlacoochee with orders to watch for the appearance of the Frolic.”
On the June 15, 1863, Nugent
and a small party reconnoitered several miles up the Crystal River. They did not
find the Frolic; however, they did spot a log breastwork. Not wanting to go back
empty-handed, Nugent guided his boat ashore, left two men to guard it, and then
attacked the breastwork with the four others, not knowing what force lay behind
the wall of the fortification.
The Marines charged the
fortification surprising the Confederates. The eleven rebels and one woman took
off running for the swamp. Their commander fired his pistol, hitting the cap box
on Nugent’s belt. Nugent ordered his men to hold their fire. The
official report of the action stated that order was given because ‘his gallantry would not permit it as there
was a woman among the fugitives.’
The Marines gathered all the
weapons in camp, loaded them into their boat, then destroyed the camp and all
supplies. Several documents were discovered confirming that the Frolic was
a blockade-runner and not a British ship despite the fact that she was often
seen flying British colors. They also recovered orders for the crew of the
Frolic to defend the fortification if attacked. Another document had the name of
a sailor who had deserted from one of the Fort Henry’s boat crews and had
taken up with the rebels.
Nugent, Corporal Charles Myhan,
and privates, John Gibbons, Patrick Coughlin, George Murphy, John Small, and
James Stuart were all mentioned in McCauley’s report to the Admiral.
The following month, Nugent
and his crew were sent on a night reconnaissance patrol off Depot Key. During a
storm that night, they rescued two men and a woman from a foundering rowboat. At
first they thought the three to be rebels, but after questioning they learned
that they were Unionists escaping for their lives. For this action, and for the
raid on the fortification at Crystal River, Sgt. Nugent was awarded the Medal of
Honor. Later, Nugent was transferred to the U.S.S. Tioga with his commander Lt.
McCauley. He was later transferred to the Marine base at Portsmouth, New
Hampshire, and finally to the U.S.S.
Vandalia. He left the Marines on October 9, 1865.
Order for Nugent’s Medal
Orderly Sergeant, U.S. Marine Corps
General Order Navy Department No. 32,
April 16, 1864
The author of this article is currently working to locate the exact
site of Nugent’s raid on the Crystal River. Ekardt believes he has found the
site where Nugent raided the fortification.
List of Officers of the
Navy of the United States and of the Marine Corps from 1778-1900
The Service Records of Christopher Nugent
The Service Records of E.Y. McCauley
The U.S. Marines in the Civil War, the First Year by David Sullivan
The U.S. Marines in the Civil War, the Second Year by David Sullivan
The U.S. Marines in the Civil War, the Third Year by David Sullivan
The U.S. Marines in the Civil War, the Final Year by David Sullivan
The Official Records of the East Gulf Blockading Squadron (Cornell University Collection)
The Marine Corps History Center
The Marine Corps Museum
|No known pictures exist of the USS Fort Henry. This is the
Commodore Perry, the same type of fore-and-aft ferry boat.
|Dave Ekardt In 1860’s Marine Uniform.|
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