Home News Get to know the Marine Corps’ first Medal of Honor recipient

Get to know the Marine Corps’ first Medal of Honor recipient

Cpl John Mackie
Marine Corps Cpl. John Mackie. Photo courtesy of the Marine Corps Historical Program.

We’re honoring the first Marine Corps Medal of Honor recipient, Cpl. John Mackie, who earned the distinction more than 150 years ago.

Mackie was a 25-year-old silversmith in New York City when he decided to join the Marines in 1861, during the early days of the Civil War.

After enlisting, he was ordered to the 19-gun frigate USS Savannah. But a few months later, in the spring of 1862, he changed duty stations to the six-gun ironclad USS Galena.

Mackie was aboard the Galena on May 15, 1862, when it was ordered up the James River by Gen. George McClellan to advance upon Richmond. About 8 miles south of the city, the Galena and several other Union ships reached Drewry’s Bluff. At the top of the bluff was Fort Darling, and the Union’s Marine forces were immediately met with heavy fire from at least two battalions of Confederate Marine riflemen lined up on the banks of the river.

It was largely a battle of Marine versus Marine.

During the four hours of fighting, shellfire continually hit the gun deck of the Galena. Mackie, who was commanding about a dozen men in that area, ignored the danger and continued firing his musket from the ship’s gun ports to try to draw snipers away from Fort Darling.

At some point, though, a 10-inch shell crashed into the deck, wounding and killing many of the Marines under his command. Mackie quickly jumped into action and had the remaining men help him clear out the bodies and debris so they could continue firing. He jumped into their gunnery positions and manned the weapons himself.

Mackie and his remaining shipmates were credited with destroying at least one of the fort’s casements.

Mackie survived, but the Galena was battered. It had suffered 28 large-caliber hits, and about 40 percent of the ship’s crew was injured or killed.

USS Galena
A drawing of the gun deck of the USS Galena, where Civil War Marine Corps Cpl. John Mackie displayed coolness under fire. Photo courtesy of the Marine Corps Historical Program.

Months after the battle, Mackie’s actions were recognized by the Secretary of the Navy and the Marine Corps commandant. And since the Medal of Honor had been established for the Department of the Navy less than a year before, Commandant Col. John Harris wasted no time in recommending Mackie for it, along with a promotion to the rank of sergeant.

Mackie didn’t receive his medal until October 1863, though, since procedures for awarding the Medal of Honor took a while to get established, and passing the message to his new ship, the USS Seminole, was a slow process back then.

The Seminole is where Mackie finally received his medal. That’s also where he remained for the rest of the Civil War. Mackie eventually married, settled in Philadelphia and became a real estate broker. He was always very proud of his service and the honor he had earned.

Attempts to find Mackie’s medal over the years have been unsuccessful. It’s still missing to this day. So if you happen to have any leads on it, notify someone at the Marine Corps Museum — they’ve been trying to track it down for several years!

By Katie Lange

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