Was This Civil War Hero the First Medal of Honor Recipient Born in Africa?

Recent research suggests Joachim Pease, a sailor recognized for his role in sinking a Confederate raider, was from Cape Verde

The crew of the USS Kearsarge, photographed shortly after their battle with the CSS Alabama
The crew of the USS Kearsarge, photographed shortly after battle with the CSS Alabama Naval History and Heritage Command

Toward the end of the Civil War, Joachim Pease, a Black sailor whose skill with a deck cannon helped sink one of the Confederate Army’s most notorious battleships, disappeared from the historical record. More than 150 years later, the Medal of Honor he earned for his bravery at the 1864 Battle of Cherbourg sits unclaimed at a museum in Washington, D.C.

Much about Pease remains unknown. In recent years, however, amateur historians have made significant strides in uncovering his story. Now, they hope to convince the United States Navy to acknowledge Pease as the first African-born recipient of the nation’s highest military honor.

Pease’s life offers the Navy an opportunity to showcase the contributions of immigrants, especially those from minority groups, who have frequently been ignored or overlooked, says Ron Barboza, a retired teacher from New Bedford, Massachusetts, who has spent years researching Pease in collaboration with Gerson Monteiro, a teacher from Brockton, Massachusetts. Both men trace their ancestry to Cape Verde, an archipelago off the coast of West Africa also known as Cabo Verde.

The front of Joachim Pease's Medal of Honor
The front of Joachim Pease's Medal of Honor Naval History and Heritage Command via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY 2.0

“So much of our history has not been recorded,” says Barboza. Cape Verdeans “have contributed a lot to the fabric of America and have never really gotten the credit.”

Donald Heflin, a former American ambassador to Cape Verde, echoes this sentiment, saying, “Cabo Verdean Americans are one of [the U.S.’s] oldest immigrant communities, going back to the colonial whaling days. We have the names of five Cabo Verdeans who fought in the American Revolution. And their proud military tradition grows from there, with the numbers of Cabo Verdean Americans in uniform getting larger with each of America’s wars.”

Who was Joachim Pease?

After discovering Pease’s story, Barboza, Monteiro and fellow amateur historian Ron Tarburton scoured enlistment records, ship logs and other archival sources in search of mentions of him. Though the sailor’s official Medal of Honor citation states he was born on Long Island, in New York, evidence compiled by researchers suggests he was actually from the Cape Verdean island of Fogo.

The handwriting on Pease’s enlistment record is difficult to make out, with his birthplace previously interpreted as either “Togo Island” or “Long Island.” But a recent analysis of the document by Navy historians points to “Fogo Island” as the most likely listed birthplace. Other known records of Pease’s life support this theory.

A U.S. Navy poster depicting Pease
A U.S. Navy poster depicting Pease Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

According to his enlistment record, Pease joined the Navy on January 13, 1862, in the whaling port of New Bedford. Though the U.S. Army was segregated at the time, the Navy was not. Pease was 20 years old, with a “Negro complexion,” and stood 5 feet, 6.5 inches tall. Based on his rank of ordinary seaman, with its corresponding monthly wage of $14 (around $420 today), he likely had at least two years of prior service at sea. Black sailors with no previous experience typically entered at the lowest rung, with the rank of “boy.”

That maritime service may have taken place on American whaling ships. On October 27, 1857, the New Bedford Merchants’ Transcript named a “Joakim Pease” as one of 29 sailors who’d left port on the whaling ship Kensington a week prior. Pease, a seaman whose place of residence was listed as “unknown,” was bound for the Indian Ocean under the command of Captain Charles P. Stetson.

Pease’s probable home of Fogo was a rich source of labor for the whaling ships that passed through New Bedford. During the first half of the 19th century, the Massachusetts town became the whaling center of the U.S., lighting homes across the country with its steady supply of whale oil.

Departing from New Bedford, whalers bound for the South Atlantic often stopped first in the Azores archipelago and then Cape Verde, both of which were then under Portuguese control. At these ports, ships took on salt, cured pork, fruit, fresh water, sugar cane liquor and local sailors. In the early 1800s, Cape Verdeans made up an estimated 40 percent of whaling crews operating out of Nantucket. Daggoo, a Black harpooner in Herman Melville’s seminal 1851 novel, Moby-Dick, is likely modeled on a Cape Verdean.

A hand-colored lithograph depicting sailors attacking a right whale
A hand-colored lithograph depicting sailors attacking a right whale Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Pease’s reasons for joining the Kensington’s crew are unknown. But for many Cape Verdeans, finding employment on a passing ship was one of the few options for escaping impoverishment on the archipelago. Cycles of drought, volcanic eruptions and famine, as well as what historian George E. Brooks describes as the “gulag”-like laws of the Portuguese colonial government, devastated Cape Verde throughout the 19th century, killing tens of thousands of people and triggering waves of mass migrations.

By the time Pease began his whaling career, the industry was in decline. Overharvesting had taken its toll on whale populations; the 1859 discovery of petroleum in Titusville, Pennsylvania, also enabled Americans to light their lamps with kerosene rather than rendered whale blubber.

With the whaling industry in a nosedive in the early 1860s, the federal government purchased dozens of derelict whaling ships, loaded them with stones and sank them to the bottom of South Carolina’s Charleston Harbor. This so-called Stone Fleet, sunk in an unsuccessful effort to blockade a key military and trading port for the South, included the Kensington, which had returned to New Bedford in 1861 with a large load of whale oil. Historians have yet to find any records of Pease between the Kensington’s return to the U.S. and his enlistment at the Navy recruiting station in New Bedford in January 1862.

Pease’s service in the Navy

Pease’s experience at sea made the Navy an obvious choice to serve his newly adopted country. During the Civil War, an estimated 18,000 Black men served in the Navy, making up about 20 percent of the enlisted force—more than double the percentage of Black soldiers who served in the segregated Army. Most Union captains, their ships “beset by desertions and sailors leaving as their terms of service expired,” welcomed Black sailors, writes historian Barbara Brooks Tomblin in Bluejackets & Contrabands: African Americans and the Union Navy. (Segregation later became the norm in the Navy, which suspended Black sailors from enlisting entirely between 1919 and 1932.)

After enlisting, Pease joined the Union steamer Kearsarge as one of 14 Black crew members. Officers’ logs contain few mentions of Pease; according to James Gindlesperger’s Fire on the Water: The USS Kearsarge and the CSS Alabama, he was “more introverted and rarely participated in the evening’s entertainment. When he did, it was usually as a spectator. Because of his quiet nature, he was not as well known to the other crew members. … But before the cruise was over, every crew member would know who Joachim Pease was and how well he could fight.”

An unidentified Black Union soldier
An unidentified Black Union soldier Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

On April 19, 1861—a week after the South Carolina militia bombarded Fort Sumter in the opening salvo of the Civil War—President Abraham Lincoln announced a naval blockade of the South. With 3,500 miles of coastline to cover and a Union Navy made up of fewer than 50 ships, the plan was audacious. “No navy in history had ever attempted to assert such complete control over so vast a coastline,” writes historian Craig L. Symonds in The Civil War at Sea.

The Confederacy responded with the naval version of guerrilla warfare: commerce raiding. The most notorious of these raiders was the CSS Alabama. Commanded by Raphael Semmes, the Alabama captured or burned 67 American merchant ships, including many whalers, between September 1862 and June 1864. In his memoirs, Semmes wrote, “We were doing the best we could, with our limited means, to harass and cripple the enemy’s commerce, that important sinew of war.”

The Alabama’s raids left Northern merchants in a state of panic. Marine insurance rates rose, and the inability of federal ships to find and stop the Alabama prompted withering criticism of Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles. The New York Herald editorialized about “the carelessness, the incompetency, the utter imbecility of the Navy Department.” Other newspapers were more sympathetic, with the Boston Post likening the search for the Alabama to “ten cats looking for a weasel in a hundred-acre lot.”

Pease and the Kearsarge left port on February 5, 1862, spending the next two years in pursuit of the Alabama and other less-notorious raiders. The sailors’ opportunity to attack arrived on a clear, sunny morning off the coast of France on June 19, 1864.

Édouard Manet, The Battle of the Kearsarge and the Alabama, 1864
Édouard Manet, The Battle of the Kearsarge and the Alabama, 1864 Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The sinking of the Alabama

A few days earlier, on June 11, the Alabama had entered the French port of Cherbourg in dire need of repairs. Copper sheeting on its hull was peeling away, replaced with a carpet of barnacles and seaweed. The ship’s boilers were corroded with salt and unable to reach full power. Its decks were leaking. Desertion had reduced the crew’s ranks. Semmes wrote that the Alabama was in no shape for a fight, comparing the ship to a “wearied foxhound, limping back after a long chase, footsore and longing for quiet and repose.” Tipped off by a telegram from the American minister in Paris, the Kearsarge steamed from its repair dock in the Netherlands and anchored in front of Cherbourg’s breakwater on June 14.

When the Alabama prepared to face the Kearsarge five days later, the French shoreline was packed with spectators. Thanks to media coverage of the impending sea duel, local hotels had been filled for days. The French battleship Napoleon gave three cheers, and its band played “Dixie” as the Alabama passed the mouth of the harbor.

Armed with seven guns, the Kearsarge also boasted a hull covered in anchor chains, which protected the ship’s boilers from shells and essentially transformed it into an ironclad, or iron-plated gunboat. The Alabama, on the other hand, was fully loaded with 350 tons of coal—cargo that Semmes hoped would lower the ship in the water and make it a smaller target. But this load also reduced the Alabama’s speed.

One of the guns used against the CSS Alabama
One of the guns used against the CSS Alabama Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The Alabama followed the Kearsarge out to the open sea and opened fire with two initial salvos, missing both times. When the ships were about half a mile apart, the Kearsarge’s captain, John Winslow, ordered Pease and the other gunners in his crew to return fire.

During the 65-minute battle, the Alabama fired some 370 rounds of ammunition. Several penetrated the Kearsarge but didn’t explode. The Kearsarge, meanwhile, fired 173 projectiles to “terrific” effect, with one shot alone killing and wounding 18 men on the Alabama and taking out a gun, as Winslow later reported.

Firing wildly, the Alabama’s shells were unable to penetrate the hull of the Kearsarge, which returned fire “controlled by a most admirable discipline,” according to a 1901 biography of Winslow. In the captain’s own words, “The effect of the training of our men was evident. Nearly every shot from our guns was telling fearfully on the Alabama.”

Naval officers on board the Kearsarge, including Captain John A. Winslow (foreground, third from the left), shortly after the sinking of CSS Alabama
Naval officers on board the Kearsarge, including Captain John A. Winslow (foreground, third from the left), shortly after the sinking of CSS Alabama Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

At 12:24 p.m., the Alabama’s stern went under. The Deerhound, a private British yacht that had observed the battle alongside several French naval vessels, rescued Semmes and other Confederate officers, who made their escape to England while the Kearsarge picked up the rest of the Alabama’s surviving sailors. By the Battle of Cherbourg’s end, three of the Kearsarge’s crew had sustained injuries, with one of the sailors later dying of his wounds. Estimates of the Alabama’s casualties vary; one source suggests 21 died in the battle, 21 were wounded and 70 were taken prisoner.

Less than a week after the Confederate defeat, Winslow sent a list of names recommended for commendation to Navy Secretary Welles. Pease was among them. David H. Sumner, acting commander of Pease’s division on the Kearsarge, wrote that the sailor’s conduct “in battle fully sustained his reputation as one of the best men in the ship.” As the loader on a forward-starboard 32-pound gun, Pease was exposed to tremendous amounts of heat and smoke from cannon fire—and was a prime target for the enemy ship. According to his Medal of Honor citation, he “exhibited marked coolness and good conduct and was highly recommended by the divisional officer for gallantry under fire.”

Pease’s Medal of Honor

The Kearsarge steamed into Boston Harbor after nightfall on November 7, 1864, the eve of the presidential election. Crowds gathered at the waterfront to “gaze in awe and exultation upon the battle-scared victor from across the sea,” according to Winslow’s biography. Winslow and his crew were celebrated as heroes, honored with a parade, a grand reception and a series of banquets. The New York Chamber of Commerce even presented Winslow with a $25,000 prize.

On December 30, Welles signed an order awarding the Medal of Honor to Pease and 146 other soldiers and sailors who’d fought in the Civil War. (At the time, the Medal of Honor was the Navy’s sole award for heroism, meaning it was awarded more frequently than it is today.) He was one of just five people of color recognized by the order.

John Lawson, a Navy sailor who received the Medal of Honor for his actions during the Civil War
John Lawson, a Navy sailor who received the Medal of Honor for his actions during the Civil War Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Pease’s enlistment record notes the end of his term of service as January 13, 1865. After that date, he vanishes from the historical record; it’s unclear whether he was ever informed of his Medal of Honor. The Navy made several attempts to find Pease after the war, including sending a notice to ships decades later, on August 7, 1898, according to research conducted by Gordon Calhoun, a historian at the National Museum of the United States Navy in Washington. “The Navy couldn’t find him,” Calhoun says. “We don’t know what happened to Pease after the Civil War.”

More than 150 years have passed since Pease’s trail disappeared at sea. But amateur historians, including Barboza and Monteiro, continue to press his case. Barboza says the Navy was initially reluctant to reopen Pease’s file. This changed, however, when Heflin, then the U.S. ambassador to Cape Verde, raised the issue with American military leaders who visited the archipelago. In a 2016 letter to then-Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, General David M. Rodriguez, then-commander of U.S. Africa Command, called on the Navy “to investigate this matter and update the historical record if necessary,” pointing out that Pease “would have been the first (and only) African-born, African American Medal of Honor recipient in U.S. history.”

Official Navy records continue to list Long Island or Newfoundland as Pease’s place of birth. (The Canadian province is also home to a Fogo Island, but a search of its extensive genealogical index yielded no records matching or close to Pease’s name.) Still, the Naval History and Heritage Command, a military body tasked with preserving and analyzing Navy history, has publicly acknowledged mounting evidence of Pease’s African origins.

The back of Pease's Medal of Honor
The back of Pease's Medal of Honor Naval History and Heritage Command via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY 2.0

Pease is “definitely … from Fogo, not from Long Island,” Calhoun says. The historian adds that his story “enlightens us with possibilities of something rare in the U.S. Navy during the Civil War—an African receiving the highest U.S. military award as a man of color.”

What bureaucratic steps the Navy could take to fully correct the record on Pease’s Medal of Honor remains to be seen. The U.S. Embassy in Cape Verde searched baptismal records from Fogo, as well as the neighboring island of Brava, without success. Neither the embassy nor amateur historians have identified descendants of Pease, who would be eligible to receive the medal in his place. As Danny Stevens and Jennie Ashton wrote in a 2020 blog post for the Naval History and Heritage Command, “While it is possible he returned to Cape Verde, it is equally possible that he continued as a sailor living his life at sea.”

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