By Ron Leir
This past spring, Kearny was pushing for the state to rename the Otto Wittpenn (Rt. 7) Bridge, linking the town with Jersey City, for one of its fallen military heroes.
At the time, town officials and local veterans were strongly behind Navy Chaplain Lt. Vincent R. Capodanno – who was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor after he was killed in Vietnam while tending to wounded and dying soldiers in Sept. 1967 at age 38 – as their best prospect.
Mayor Alberto Santos proclaimed Capodanno to be Kearny’s “only Medal of Honor winner.”
Since then, however, the mayor said he has reconsidered – not at all slighting Capodanno’s sacrifi ce – in favor of another more Kearny-based candidate.
After further discussion with veterans, Santos said he’s learned that the Capodanno family had only a tenuous historical connection to the town and that it turns out he wasn’t the only veteran to have received that unique honor.
The mayor credited a local Vietnam War veteran, Thomas J. Nash, who served with the Airborne Rangers, with coming up with information about a Kearny Civil War Navy veteran, James McIntosh, who was awarded the Medal of Honor for bravery during the Union Naval assault on Mobile, Ala., on Aug. 5, 1864.
His citation reads: “On board the U.S.S. Richmond during action against rebel forts and gunboats and with the ram Tennessee in Mobile Bay, 5 August 1864. Despite damage to his ship and the loss of several men on board as enemy fire raked her decks, McIntosh performed his duties with skill and courage throughout the prolonged battle which resulted in the surrender of the rebel ram Tennessee and in the successful attacks carried out on Fort Morgan.”
Listed in his citation as “Captain of the Top,” McIntosh would have been positioned at the top of the highest mast on the Richmond – probably comparable to today’s Chief Petty Officer, according to Nash’s research. Aside from deploying the sails, the Captain of the Top “also had responsibilities for deck guns during encounters at sea,” Nash noted.
Historical records, Nash said, indicate that the Richmond, “a wooden steam sloop,” was first pressed into war service in July 1861 and, the following year, saw action as part of a Union fleet commanded by Rear Admiral David Farragut during an assault on Baton Rouge when the vessel was hit 17 times above the waterline but suffered only minimal casualties because the ship was protected by chain armor. In July 1862, the Richmond also participated in the siege and taking of Vicksburg.
Two years later, Nash said, the Richmond – serving as part of Farragut’s fleet in the Battle of Mobile Bay – was lashed to the starboard side of the Union steamboat, Port Royal, as the fleet proceeded across a sand bar at the mouth of the bay while the Confederates opened fire from Fort Morgan.
After the Union ironclad struck a moored “torpedo” (mine) and quickly sank, the Union sloop Brooklyn “backed into a right angle to Richmond’s bow in order to clear ‘a row of suspicious looking buoys,’ (as an historical account described the situation) … causing the entire line of wooden (Union) ships to fall into disarray,” Nash said.
It was at this point, Nash said, that Farragut is said to have uttered his famous command, “Damn the torpedos … full steam ahead!” and the assault began in earnest with a “steady day and night bombardment” of Fort Morgan, which finally surrendered on Aug. 23.
Nash’s research revealed that McIntosh was one of 31 Richmond crew members to be awarded the Medal of Honor during the War Between the States – “more than any other ship during the war.” He received his award on Dec. 31, 1864.
For Nash, the significance of the Union victory in Mobile Bay was that “it prevented the South from getting re-supplied,” and thereby helped turn the tide in favor of the Union forces.
“Most information concerning McIntosh seems to have been lost to history,” Nash said, “except that we know that he was Canadian (and one of 59 Canadians to receive the Medal of Honor for Civil War service) and that he enlisted in the U.S. Navy in New York City.”
What is also known – and only recently discovered by Nash with help from Arlington Monumental Works owner Peter Malnati – is that McIntosh is buried in the Soldiers’ Circle in Arlington Memorial Park off Schuyler Ave. in Kearny.
“At the time of his death on May 28, 1908, McIntosh was a resident of Kearny, living at the Home for Disabled Soldiers that stood on what is Belgrove Drive today,” Nash said.
Nash said the National Cemetery Administration of the U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs recently installed a Medal of Honor plaque at the base of McIntosh’s “almost unrecognizable” gravestone.
The plaque lists McIntosh’s date of birth as Nov. 12, 1929, so he was 76 when he died, although the citation gives 1833 as the year he was born. “I’m still trying to resolve that inconsistency,” Nash said.
It was actually “by accident” that Nash made his discovery of McIntosh. “I was president of my Ranger Company Association and I was doing research into Medal of Honor recipients in New Jersey,” he said, and McInosh popped up.
“I put his name in the ‘Find a Grave’ website,” Nash said, and that pointed the way to Arlington Memorial Park. Nash then enlisted the aid of Malnati and cemetery personnel to search out McIntosh’s grave. Next step in the process, Santos said, is to sound out the United Veterans Organization, of Kearny, and its leader, Joseph Frobisher Jr. American Legion Post Commander Anthony Capitti, on arriving at a consensus on petitioning state legislators to name the bridge for McIntosh.
“Hopefully, by next month, we could have a consensus,” he said.
“We may also have to come up with a Jersey City veteran whose name could go on the bridge, in fairness to Jersey City,” Santos said.