The Coast Guard's First Medal of Honor Recipient
Many with knowledge of service history believe Guadalcanal hero Douglas Munro was the Coast Guard’s first and only recipient of the Medal of Honor. Technically, they would be wrong. In fact, Lighthouse Keeper Marcus Aurelius Hanna also received the Medal of Honor, the U.S. military’s highest recognition for combat heroism.
Born in Bristol, Maine, in 1842, Marcus Hanna came from a long line of Maine lighthouse keepers. His grandfather kept the light at Boone Island starting in 1812 and his parents kept the light at Franklin Island when he was a child. In 1853, at the age of 10, Hanna went to sea as a ship’s boy returning home at age 18. Soon, the Civil War began and he enlisted in the Union Navy serving for a year. In 1862, Hanna mustered out of the Navy, enlisted in the 50th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment and, soon after, shipped out to the Gulf Coast for combat operations.
On Saturday, July 4, 1863, Hanna found himself positioned with Company B in rifle pits not far from the Confederate positions at Port Hudson, Louisiana. Hanna’s company found no relief from the summer sun and heat in their uncovered rifle emplacements. The Massachusetts men quickly consumed the water in their canteens and faced the threat of heat exhaustion. When the company lieutenant called for volunteers to fetch water from Union lines, 150 yards of open ground to the rear, only Hanna volunteered. Carrying a load of a dozen canteens, Hanna leapt out of the trenches and ran a zigzag pattern through fire from enemy sharpshooters. After securing fresh water, Hanna had to cover the same deadly ground to get back to his unit. The return trip was easier–seeing that he was carrying water, the Confederates no longer used him for target practice. Over the course of his odyssey back and forth over the unprotected field, Hanna received only a stray pellet in his calf. For bravely sprinting back and forth over exposed ground to get water from his troops, Hanna was recommended for the Medal of Honor.
Painting of the Battle of Port Hudson by J.O. Davidson. (Library of Congress)
In addition to the Medal of Honor, Hanna would earn the Gold Lifesaving Medal for another act of heroism. After the war, Hanna became the keeper of Pemaquid Point Light in his hometown of Bristol, Maine. After the election of Ulysses S. Grant to the presidency, Hanna requested appointment to the light station at Portland, Maine’s Cape Elizabeth, also known as Two Lights. By order of the president, he received the assignment and transferred to Portland in 1873.
In the early morning of Thursday, Jan. 28, 1885, the schooner Australia was driven on the rocks at Cape Elizabeth. Hanna’s wife Louise spotted the stricken vessel and awoke him. In the dim light of that January morning, Hanna could discern two survivors, frozen stiff and covered with ice. They were alive only because they had lashed themselves to the rigging. Hanna fetched a light, some strong cord, a piece of scrap iron and long heavy line. To one end of the light line, he fastened the heavy rope and to the other he tied the scrap iron and he began heaving the line toward the men. Seeing the futility of Hanna’s efforts, the assistant keeper ran to the nearest house for aid. Over time, Hanna grew weary from heaving the line repeatedly in freezing temperatures. On one attempt, Hanna heaved the line, slipped and fell. However, on that particular cast, the line reached one of the freezing sailors who secured the heavy line under his armpits. On Hanna’s signal, he let go of the rigging and the keeper hauled him ashore.
Hanna kept heaving the line to the remaining sailor hoping to place the rope within his reach. Through the fog and icy rain, Hanna could barely see the man in the rigging. Finally, he threw the line within reach of the frozen mariner, who reached out for the iron piece, grasped it, hauled in the rope, fastened it around himself and, without waiting for a signal, jumped into the roiling water below. Hanna began hauling in the rope but his energy had finally left him and he could haul no more. However, help finally arrived and fresh hands took the hawser from Hanna’s frozen fists. Quickly, the sailor was hauled ashore and the two survivors taken to the safety and warmth of the keeper’s quarters. Both men had been saved.
The U.S. Lighthouse Service awarded Hanna the Gold Lifesaving Medal in 1885, and Congress awarded him the Medal of Honor on in 1895. Hanna is the only individual honored with both prestigious medals. He passed away in 1921 and was laid to rest at Mount Pleasant Cemetery in South Portland, Maine. In 1997, a Coast Guard buoy tender of the 175-foot “Keeper”-Class was named in his honor. He was yet another distinguished member of the long blue line.
This article appears courtesy of Coast Guard Compass and may be found in its original form here.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.