A Look Back at Salem's Medal of Honor Recipients

In honor of Veterans day let's look back at the deeds of valor that generated the highest military award for these five men of Salem.

Long before there was a Armistice or Veterans Day, Salem, like many other places, gave homage to veterans by naming streets and squares after them.

Through the years Salem has continued to honor our veterans, both living and dead who exemplified  American resolve and dedication through their actions under fire. Currently there are some 69 squares named for veterans in the city. There are also a number of streets named for veterans including the recently named  Sgt. James Ayube II Memorial Drive who was killed in action in Afghanista on Dec 8, 2011.

Salem is noteworthy as having had five (Congressional) Medals of Honor bestowed on Salemites over the years since the Medal of Honor was instituted in 1862. While four of the five were not accredited to Salem, these men were born here. 

The first Medals of Honor were given to a group of Union soldiers who volunteered for a dangerous mission behind enemy lines during the Civil War. A native born Salemite was in this group.

The Great Locomotive Chase

The mission of 22 volunteers was to commandeer a train and drive it between Chattanooga and Atlanta while cutting telegram lines, burning bridges and disrupting train travel. By doing so, it was hoped that Chattanooga would be unable to get re-enforcements and surrender the city to the Northern Army. The risk with this daring raid was that if captured, the men would be tried and executed as spies. Shortly after the raid began, the Confederate Army learned of it and a chase and running gun battle ensued that would later be called the Great Locomotive Chase. 

After fighting their way to within 20 miles of Chattanooga, many of the men were captured. While the raid was unsuccessful in burning the bridges due to heavy rains soaking the wooden bridges, they were successful in drawing thousands of Confederate troops away from battle to protect their vital railroads.

Of the volunteers, eight were tried and hanged as spies, another eight managed to escape back to the Union lines while the remaining six were spared from hanging through a prisoner exchange. All the Army volunteers
were the first men to receive the Medal of Honor for their valor bestowed by Congress and President Lincoln. Because this honor was given to enlisted men by Congress, it became known as the Congressional Medal of Honor. Being a military honor, it was only bestowed on the 20 volunteer soldiers, not the civilian leader, James Andrews who was hanged as a spy.

Among these men was Robert Buffum who was born in Salem in 1828. He was the son of William and Mary, (Chace) Buffum. He had enlisted in the 21st Ohio Regiment giving his home as Gilead, Ohio. He was among the group captured and held prisoner by the Confederates until exchanged. He was the third man to receive the Medal of Honor in the first Medal of Honor ceremony.

After release from the Army he had a difficult time and ended up spending three years in a mental hospital which was probably due to his  treatment while a prisoner. The seeds of tragedy were planted in his heroism. After being released from the hospital Buffum suffered from alcoholism. Later in New York, Buffum shot and killed a man in an argument where the man was vilifying Lincoln. Buffum was convicted and sentenced to the state Asylum for the criminally insane at Auburn, NY. In 1871, while still incarcerated, he committed suicide and was buried in an unmarked grave on the property. It was not known that he had been a Medal of Honor recipient.

After extensive research the Medal of Honor Society, dedicated to honoring and preserving the memory of deceased recipients, identified his resting place. In 1995, at a ceremony, a plaque was placed on his resting place with family members  in attendance. The gravesite is now maintained by volunteers.  The MOH is accredited to Gilead, OH by virtue of his having lived there at enlistment.

This raid was immortalized in the 1956 hit Disney film, The Great Locomotive Chase where the Robert Buffum character is highlighted.

Salem Sailor in Mobile Bay Battle during Civil War

Thomas Atkinson was born in Salem in 1824. At 18 he shipped out of Salem as a petty officer in the U.S Navy. He was assigned to the US Frigate Congress where he served in the Mediterranean and South America. He was involved in the US actions during the siege of Montevideo
in So. Americawhen the Buenos Ayrean fleet was captured.

His most memorable battle was the one for Mobile Bay. Mobile Bay was a fortified harbor. In order to enter and engage the rebel forces of gunboats and ironclads, ships had run a gauntlet of the guns from the forts protecting the harbor. The USS Richmond was part of a fleet of ships under Admiral Farragut who ran the gauntlet of guns through a narrow channel that was surrounded by mines then called torpedoes.

It was in this greatest naval battle of the civil war that Admiral Farragut made his famous declaration, “Damn, the torpedoes” as his ships were forced to sail through the minefield. Throughout this day long battle, Yeoman Atkinson was in charge of supplying the rifle ammunition for the
guns on the Richmond. He did so even at the height of battle when the iron clad ships as well as the forts continued to pound the Richmond, The citation read at  medal ceremony commended Atkinson for his coolness and energy in supplying the rifle ammunition, which was under his sole charge, in the action in Mobile Bay on 5 August 1864. This simple statement fails to capture the intensity and constant danger he was in as the Union forces battled the cream of the Confederate Navy. It was this courage and tenacity under fire that brought his contribution to the notice of his fellow sailors.

Unfortunately, little is known about Atkinson after he left the Navy. The whereabouts of his grave remains a mystery so no suitable memorial has been established according to the Medal of Honor Society. His Medal of Honor is accredited to Massachusetts.

Salem Sailor on a Civil War chain

Salem’s third Medal of Honor recipient was also honored for his Civil War service. Thomas Lyons was born in Salem in 1838. In 1862 he was a seaman in the U.S. Navy on board the USS Pensacola, a steamship, as it took part in the attack on Forts Jackson and St Phillip which were situated on the Mississippi river protecting access to the important Confederate city of New Orleans, Louisiana. In addition to the forts, there were a number of confederate ships defending the largest city of the Confederacy. An additional defense was a large chain across the river. In order to break the chain ships would be forced to slow down or even stop directly under the forts’ powerful guns.

The Union plan of attack was to use mortar barges to bombard the forts, then steam past after the chain was broken by Union iron clad ships racing forward then allowing the main ships to enter. The mortar barrage while intense and sustained did little to damage the forts’ ability to defend the waters. After two days of this Admiral Farragut who hadn’t had much faith in the mortars ordered his ironclads to move forward and break the chain so his ships could then proceed to engage the confederate fleet. Three ironclads managed to make a gap in the chain for the ships to proceed. A major problem was the depth of the waters. He had already withdrawn one ship, the Coronado, from the attacking fleet because of its deep draft.

The USS Pensacola with its 18 ½ foot draft and top speed of 9.5 knots was concerned with getting through the chain gap. Seaman Thomas Lyons was then secured to the port chain holding the lead weight calling out depths as they proceeded through the narrow gap in the chain. They commenced the attack under cover of darkness at 3:00 AM . Since they were so close to the shore they were quickly seen by the shore batteries who proceeded to rain fire down on the ships. At the same time the rebel gunboats also opened fire and attempted to ram several of the Union ships as they made for the gap. Lyons stayed on the outside of the ship even during this murderous assault and luckily didn’t get hit.

For his bravery, his citation for the medal of honor read that he “served as seaman on board the U.S.S. Pensacola in the attack on Forts Jackson and St. Philip, 24 April 1862. Carrying out his duties throughout the din and roar of the battle, Lyons never once erred in his brave performance. Lashed outside of that vessel, on the port-sheet chain, with the lead in hand to lead the ship past the forts, Lyons never flinched, although under a heavy fire from the forts and rebel gunboats.” 

After battling for hours the Union forces overpowered the Confederate Navy dealing them a fatal blow while opening access to New Orleans.

After leaving the Navy there is little known about the rest of Lyons life.
It is believed that he died in 1904 but no grave or memorial is listed for   him. His Medal of Honor is accredited to Massachusetts.

Salem’s 6th Cavalry Corporal during the Indian Wars

Salem’s fourth Medal of Honor recipient earned his medal while serving as a corporal in the 6th US Cavalry during the Indian wars. Samuel Bowden, (Boden) was born in Salem in 1846.

In 1870 in Northern Texas there were a number of battles between U. S. soldiers and Native Americans brought on by raids on white settlements in former tribal lands. In July 1870 a notable battle took place at Little Wichita River, TX.  In response to a raid on a mail stagecoach sixty soldiers went in pursuit of the raiders only to realize they were facing more than twice as many warriors armed with rifles. A bloody battle ensued with many casualties. The cavalry was just able to escape. 13 soldiers received the Medal of Honor for their gallantry throughout that day long battle.

Even after the main force of the Kiowa warriors had returned to the reservation, raids continued.  In response to these raids a force of twenty two cavalrymen under Captain Rafferty left Fort Richardson  in early October in pursuit of the raiding war party. On October 5 they discovered a Kiowa war party camp at the Little Wichita River and engaged the enemy. In this fierce battle Private Samuel Bowden along with 4 other men were later honored with the Medal of Honor for, “Gallantry during the pursuit and fight with Indians.”

Little is known of Samuel Bowden after his time in the Cavalry. The Medal of Honor Society that seeks to keep Medal of Honor memories alive through suitable memorials has not yet been able to identify Bowden’s date of death nor his burial place. Bowden is listed as a Medal of Honor recipient from Massachusetts, rather than from a specific city of town, because so little information is known.

Salemite distinguished in Spanish American War

Salem’s most recent and probably best known recipient of the Medal of Honor was John Riley. Unlike the other Medal of Honor winners, John Riley was not born in Salem. He was born January 22, 1877 at Allentown, PA but became a Salem native. He enlisted in the Navy from Massachusetts and saw action in the Spanish American War.  As a sailor on the USS Nashville he participated in a number of battles during this war. Most notable for him was the Battle of Cienfuegos, Cuba.

While battles raged with Spain’s fleet in Manila in the Philippines, other American ships started a blockade around Cuba on April 21,1898. They quickly captured several merchant ships. The naval warships the USS Marblehead and the USS Nashville were patrolling a large area on the southern coast including the busy merchant port of Cienfuegos when the first breach of the blockade took place on April 26. The Spanish liner, Montserrat was able to unload supplies and troops in Cienfuegos. Ten days later they again breached the blockade leaving the port for Spain.

Cienfuegos was a well defended port with garrisons of troops, fortifications and switch controlled floating mines in the harbor. Captain McCall of the USS Marblehead came up with a daring plan to isolate the port and weaken the Spanish war effort by cutting their communication cables that ran along the harbor floor. By May 10 he had identified how the cable ran through the harbor and thought it was possible to use grappling hooks to raise and cut the cable. Unfortunately the cables ran close to shore and well within shooting range of the soldier and shore fortifications. Realizing the danger involved but feeling it was worth the risk, he and his fellow Captain Maynard from the USS Nashville asked for volunteers from each ship. Acknowledging the intense danger they asked for volunteers and discouraged younger men from volunteering. 26 men volunteered from each ship; 40 sailors and 12 marines in all signed on for their first real action of the war.

The plan was that boatloads of marines and sailors would offer covering fire while sailors would use the grappling hooks, pull the cable up and have it cut by the ships’ blacksmith. At 5:00 am the men were transported from their ships to a steam launch that brought them into the harbor where small boats were launched with the sailors and marines. The waters were rough and destined to get rougher once the Spanish soldiers realized what the Americans were trying to do only 15 feet from shore. The Spanish opened fire on the boats and men, wounding several and killing one.

For almost three hours the men endured heavy seas, intense fire from the garrisoned troops and shells from the fortifications that practically lifted the boats out of the water as the shells got closer. Amid this barrage, the American warships gave cover with their guns. Eyewitnesses recounted how it was non-stop, with shells flying overhead and all around them while shooting was uninterrupted on both sides. When Spanish troops sprinted toward the signal house to set off the mines, marine sharpshooters stopped them until the ships were able to destroy the signal house. By the time the frantically working blacksmiths had cut through the thick cables with hacksaws, the boats were floundering from all the bullet holes shot into their sides.

They succeeded in cutting the cables, then towing the cables further out to sea where more cable could be removed to hamper any repair. As one boatload of men was about to sink and was under exceptionally intense fire, one of the American ships was able to steam forward into the line of fire and offer them protection at the cost of more injuries. By the end of the action four men had been killed and seven wounded.

For their courage and tenacity, all the volunteers received the Medal of Honor. Each citation read the same for the 52 men: “On board the (U.S.S. Nashville or U.S.S. Marblehead) during the cutting of the cable leading from Cienfuegos, Cuba, 11 May 1898. Facing the heavy fire of the enemy, he set an example of extraordinary bravery and coolness throughout this action.”

John P Riley (Rilley on the MOH) was one of the Navy volunteers that day who received the Medal of Honor on May 11, 1898. After discharge from the Navy in 1899, Riley returned to Salem where he raised a family and worked for the city until his retirement in 1944. He was very active in Veterans’ affairs and a frequent participant in parades in the city and state. He proudly displayed a piece of the Cienfuegos cable in his home at 3 Warner Street.  John Riley passed away on Nov. 16, 1950 at the age of 72. His burial was at Harmony Grove Cemetery, Salem, MA.

Riley Plaza was named in his honor in June 1959. His Medal of Honor is the only one accredited to Salem, Massachusetts.

ACG November 11, 2012 at 01:21 PM
Great article. Love local history stories like this and thank you for recognizing local Veterans. I also like that "Congressional" was placed in the manner that it was. "(Congressional)". The medal is awarded by the President on behalf of Congress. It is often erroneously referred to as the Congressional Medal of Honor. For some reason it really irks me when I hear people refer to it as such. "The Medal of Honor is the United States of America's highest military honor, awarded for acts of valor above and beyond the call of duty. The medal is awarded by the President of the United States in the name of Congress. Although the medal is sometimes referred to as the Congressional Medal of Honor, the original and official title is the "Medal of Honor"" From Wikipedia.


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