Forgotten hero: N.S. man who served in U.S. Civil War honoured in D.C.
Published Friday, April 29, 2016 10:38PM EDT
An African-Nova Scotian man who served in the U.S. Navy and later received America's highest honour was celebrated at a ceremony in Washington, D.C., on Friday, more than a century after his heroism at sea went forgotten.
Joseph B. Noil, who was born in Liverpool, N.S., sometime between 1839 and 1841, was a seaman with the U.S. Navy.
According to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, which documents the lives of those who have received the award, Noil received the highest decoration that can be bestowed on a U.S. military member for saving boatswain J.C. Walton from drowning while serving on board the U.S.S. Powhattan at Norfolk, on Dec. 26, 1872.
According to a memo from Capt. Peirce Crosby, commander of the Powhattan, Noil displayed “gallant conduct,” rushing from below to the deck of the ship after hearing the “man-overboard” call go up.
He then dove into the water in bitterly cold weather, during a gale, to save his shipmate.
Noil “took the end of a rope, went overboard, under the bow, and caught Mr. Walton, who was then in the water, and held him until he was hauled into the boat sent to his rescue,” Crosby wrote in his dispatch to the Army and Navy Journal.
“Mr. Walton, when brought on board, was almost insensible, and would have perished but for the noble conduct of Noil, as he was sinking at the time he was rescued,” Crosby is documented as saying.
Noil received the Medal of Honor for the rescue. He is one of 108 Canadian Medal of Honor recipients, and the only black Canadian known to receive the distinction.
Noil continued to serve, including during the Civil War and eventually retired with the rank of captain of the hold, before being admitted to a hospital in Norfolk in 1881, where he was diagnosed with “paralysis.” He was later transferred to the Saint Elizabeth Hospital, where he died in March 1882.
The cemetery of the hospital, which was once known as the Government Hospital for the Insane of the Army, the Navy and the District of Columbia, was the final resting place of more than 2,000 servicemen who suffered from what is now known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Noil was among the dead buried there, but, despite his decorated military service, Noil's heroics were all but forgotten following his death.
The name on his headstone was misspelled as “Noel,” and absent from it was any mention of Noil's status as a Medal of Honor recipient.
On Friday, representatives from the Canadian Embassy, members of the military and veterans gathered at the cemetery for a rare public ceremony at which Noil's new Medal of Honor headstone was unveiled. Also in attendance was Bernadette Maybelle Parks Ricks, a great-great-great granddaughter of Noil. Until recently, her family did not know of Noil's decorated history or where he was buried.
"I think he wasn't at rest, I think that has made him able to rest now," Ricks told CTV News.
In 2011, members of the Medal of Honor Historical Society of the United States worked with the Congressional Medal of Honor Society to find his grave.