Friday, 1 November 2019

The Stevedore who saved the crew of an Ironclad; Maurice Wagg (1840-1926), East London Cemetery, Plaistow


On Monday 08 September 1913, 50 old men (their average age was 83), all members of the London branch of the United States Civil War Veterans Association, celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg courtesy of the proprietors of the West End Cinema. They met for a slap up lunch at Frascati’s restaurant in Oxford Street, which according to John Davis, secretary of the veterans association and at 74 years old one of its younger members, was far better than the "rancid raw pork, rotten biscuits, and muddy water” they had enjoyed on the battlefields 50 years earlier. After the meal they listened to an address by the US military attaché Colonel Squire before tottering unsteadily with walking sticks and legs impaired by age and alcohol through Soho Square and down Dean Street to the West End Cinema on Coventry Street to watch a special screening of the silent film ‘The Battle of Gettysburg’ arranged by the manager Mr William L. Ken. Those that didn’t snooze off during the 5 reel epic greeted the final victory of the Union with rapturous applause, according to the East Kent Gazette who were there reporting on the attendance of their local veteran, 94 year old William Berry of Grown Road, Milton Regis.  “In spite of his great age” the admiring Gazette reporter noted, “Mr. Berry travelled to London alone, found his way about the busy streets, and returned home in the evening none the worse for the trip.” The oldest member of the association present was 104 year old Edward Munroe who was in excellent health according to the Gazette and whose “appreciation of the pleasures of the table were not curtailed by his great age.” The star of the veterans however was undoubtedly Maurice Wagg, a hale and hearty 73 year old from Cubitt Town on the Isle of Dogs who, to be able to attend the event, had had to ask his boss for the day off from the chemical works where he still worked as a labourer.  Maurice proudly wore his Congressional Medal of Honor, the US equivalent of the Victoria Cross, which he had been awarded for his part in rescuing the crew of the famous ironclad, Monitor which had foundered off Cape Hatteras half a century before.

The Virginia and Monitor in the first battle of the ironclads at Hampton Roads

Maurice Wagg was born in Christchurch, Hampshire in 1840, the son of a former ploughman and the second of 9 children. Christchurch is just 20 miles from Southampton and the young Maurice succumbed to the lure of a life at sea. He was in New York at the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 and enlisted in the Union Navy, serving as coxswain on the U.S.S. Rhode Island, a side wheel steamer originally called the Eagle and built just the previous year in New York then bought by the Union navy on June 27 1861. The Rhode Island was a supply ship providing stores to other navy ships as far south as Galveston, Texas. On 29 December 1862 the Rhode Island was ordered to tow the ironclad U.S.S. Monitor from Hampton Roads, where she had taken part in the famous battle, to Beaufort in North Carolina. The Monitor was the Unions first ironclad, designed by Swedish born John Ericsson and built on the East River in Brooklyn in just 101 days in late 1861. The U.S. Navy had largely remained loyal to the union at the outbreak of the Civil War leaving the Confederates at a disadvantage which they had tried to recover by investing in the construction of ironclads. This precipitated an arms race in which the construction of the Monitor was the Union’s first response to the Confederate’s strategy of using armour plated, steam powered battleships.  The ship was launched on 06 March 1862 and made immediately for Fort Munro in Virginia where a Union flotilla was blockading the James River. On 08 March the Confederate’s massive ironclad the Virginia engaged the flotilla at Hampton Roads, sinking two frigates and driving another aground. Although they were not convinced that the smaller Monitor was capable of taking on the much bigger Virginia Union Generals had no real choice but to order her into position to try and prevent the Confederate ship from breaking through the blockade and sailing up the Potomac to attack Washington. By the time the Monitor arrived at 9.00pm hostilities were effectively over for the day. When they resumed again next morning at 8.00am the crew of the Virginia were astonished to see the Monitor sail from behind the Union’s biggest ship, the Minnesota, and into a combat position. For the next four hours the two ships engaged in the first, ferocious, but ultimately indecisive, battle of ironclad battleships.  The two ships slowly circled each other,  it took the massive Virginia half an hour to complete a 180 degree turn, firing shells and solid shot at armour plate in an effort to sink the other. The Monitor took 22 direct hits, including 9 on its distinctive gun turret which caused bolts inside to shear off and ricochet around inside.  After the battle the crew of the Virginia counted 92 dents in her armour caused by the Monitors guns. Neither ship was significantly damaged; the outcome of the first duel of the ironclads was judged to be a draw.   

The crew of the USS Rhode Island save the crew of the Monitor   

The Monitor next saw action in May when she went to the assistance of the Union army trying to take Richmond by taking on the Confederate batteries at the battle of Dewry’s Bluff.  In September she was ordered back to Washington for repairs and refitting. On the day of her arrival she was greeted by a crowd of thousands lining the banks of the Potomac, cheering wildly.  On 24 December she was ordered to Beaufort, North Carolina from where she would join the blockade of Charleston.  Many of the crew, including the Executive Officer, Samuel Dana Greene, were not happy with the orders. Lieutenant Greene went so far as to say “I do not consider this steamer a sea going vessel”.  Designed for river combat the Monitor’s low freeboard and heavy gun turret made her unseaworthy in heavy winter seas. The crew were allowed to celebrate Christmas day on board (the cook was paid an additional dollar to prepare a festive dinner) but departure was further delayed because of poor weather. She was only able to launch on her final journey on 29 December.  It took her two days to navigate the bends and shifts of the Potomac and the sheltered waters of Chesapeake Bay  and reach the open sea; just in time to coincide with unsettled weather on 31 December. The command were so worried about Monitor’s seaworthiness that they put her under tow to USS Rhode Island, Maurice’s ship. Captain Bankhead used a chalk and blackboard to write a message to the crew of the Rhode Island – if his ship were to get into trouble he would use a red lantern to signal his need for assistance. It didn’t take long for the red lantern to be used; the unsettled weather soon turned into a storm and large waves were crashing over the Monitor. Water flooded into vents and port holes and the ship began to roll uncontrollably. The pumps were manned but water came quicker than the frantic crew could drain it out. The anchor was dropped, towlines to the Rhode Island cut (with the loss of two lives, both men swept overboard)and the engines stopped to divert all available steam to the steam pump but none of this was to any avail; the ship continued to pitch and roll in the waves and continued to take on water. Captain Bankhead lit the red lantern and signalled to the crew of the Rhode Island. 

The only known photo of Maurice wearing his Union uniform

Maurice’s official citation for the Medal of Honor gives few details of what he did that night as the Monitor sank off Cape Hatteras. He was, with the rest of the crew of the Rhode Island “engaged in saving the lives of the officers and crew of the Monitor.... participating in the hazardous task of rescuing [them],” when he “distinguished himself by meritorious conduct.” Exactly what this meritorious conduct consisted of is not stated. As a coxswain he would have been in charge of one of the small boats that put off from the Rhode Island in heavy seas, in almost total darkness, and rowed out to the sinking ironclad, getting close enough to take the panicking crew on board. 49 lives were saved before the Monitor finally sank taking four officers and 12 ordinary seaman with her to the ocean bed. None of the rescuers from the Rhode Island were killed though one of the cutters became separated and drifted away taking its crew with it. The Rhode Island stayed in position all night, waiting for daylight to search for more survivors and its missing cutter. After a fruitless search on new year’s day 1863 the ship made its way back to Washington to break the news of the loss of the ironclad. The missing cutter was picked up by a passing schooner 50 miles off Cape Hatteras later that day, all its occupants alive and well. Seven crew members of the Rhode Island were awarded the Medal of Honor for their part in the rescue, including three who had been in the lost cutter.  

Maurice’s Medal of Honor was awarded on 31 December 1864, the second anniversary of the sinking of the Monitor. We know he was still in the US in 1866 because on 20 January he married Mary Ann Murphy in Maine. The marriage did not last long; within a few weeks Maurice had abandoned his bride, walking out on her and taking her money in the process. It is hard to reconcile this behaviour with the heroism that won him his medal. By 1871 Maurice is back in England; he is recorded on the census as a mariner lodging at 3 Andersons Road in Southampton. He was still working on the ships 10 years later when he was staying with his aunt, the redoubtable widow, Benanna Summers, of Bulls Row in Northrepps, a village a few miles from Cromer in Norfolk. Maurice’s younger brother Charles had married a girl from Northrepps in 1875, Caroline Golden. Caroline had an older sister Harriet who had worked in London, in Belsize Park, as a housemaid to the ship owner Frederick Stovell but who was living back in Northrepps, in her father’s house in Bulls Row, when Maurice was lodging with his aunt Benanna. Harriet was 36 and Maurice 41, well past the usual age for marrying, when the pair of them tied the knot on 29 March 1880 at St Marylebone Parish Church, giving their address as 15 Lower Seymour Street, Bayswater just off the Edgeware Road. The following year the newly married couple were back in Northrepps with their first baby Ernest, Harriet staying at her fathers and Maurice with his aunt. Ernest was probably born in Northrepps, he was certainly baptised there in the 15th century church of St Mary the Virgin. The family may have been visiting Northrepps, certainly by the following year when their second child William was born In February they were living in Poplar. Baby William didn’t survive to see his first birthday, he died in January 1883.

By the time of the 1891 census Maurice and Harriet were firmly ensconced in Galbraith Street in Cubitt Town on the Isle of Dogs. Maurice was to spend the rest his life living in the street, first at number 11 and then at number 24. The small terraced houses that once housed the workers at the Millwall Docks were all destroyed by German bombs in the Second World War and eventually replaced by low rise social housing blocks. In census returns Maurice lists his occupation as Stevedore and the houses he lived in were always shared with at least one other family. In 1901 his only surviving child, 20 year old Ernest died in Dublin. With no pension an no children to support him and Harriet Maurice continued to work well into his seventies. When work in the docks became too physically demanding he moved to a chemical factory as a labourer. He died on 22 June 1926 aged 86 and was buried in an unmarked grave in the East London Cemetery in Plaistow. After his death Harriet tried to claim a Federal Widows Pension from the US Government. Surely Maurice had told her about his previous marriage? Maybe he had omitted to mention thathe had never been divorced?  Her request for a pension was refused on the grounds that her marriage was invalid, Maurice’s previous marriage to Mary Ann Murphy having never been dissolved. Mary had died in 1910 but Harriet had no right to a widows pension. She died in Poplar in 1937, aged 97.       

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