Honoring a forgotten Medal of Honor recipient

Joseph Noil to receive proper burial honors after nearly 130 years


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Joseph Noil is not exactly a house hold name and even those that know him best will admit that he is shrouded in mystery. Best guesses surround not only his name, but also his home town, his period of service and the exact cause of his death. About the only things that are certain about Joseph Benjamin Noil, is that he served in the U.S. Navy, he was an African American and he was an American hero.

Noil’s story starts in 1839, or maybe as late 1841 – no one really knows for sure – but experts believe he was born in Liverpool, Nova Scotia, Canada, as that information was pieced together by historians from naval records.

Noil enlisted in New York on Oct. 7, 1864. He was described simply as “Negro” and “5 feet 6 inches tall.” His birthplace was noted as Nova Scotia and he bore at least one tattoo. His age was recorded as 25; his previous occupation was listed as a carpenter, but this could be a clerical error as historians also found his name misspelled in other documents as “Loil” instead of Noil.

Gayle Alvarez and Bart Armstrong of Medal of Honor Historical Society provide a concise look at his service— removing a portion of the mystery surrounding Noil:

He served with the North Atlantic Squadron and then on Jan. 27, 1865, transferred to the Nyack. In March 1866, he transferred to the Dacotah and served until March 18, 1867 when he was discharged. Noil re-enlisted on Dec. 18, 1871, again in New York. This time his age was recorded as 30.

Then dawned Dec. 26, 1872. The Powhattan’s ship log noted that the weather was overcast and rainy with a moderate gale of wind from the northwest. It also contains this very brief excerpt: “At 11 Jack Walton, boatswain, fell overboard but was saved in an exhausted condition.”

period image of the USS PowhatanUnfortunately, there was no mention of Walton’s rescuer in the ships log. But the next day Captain Peirce Crosby, commander of the Powhattan, identified Walton’s hero in a memo that would be published in a Jan. 11, 1873, Army and Navy Journal. The entry reads:

“Sir: I have the honor to bring to the notice of the Department the gallant conduct of Joseph B. Noil, seaman, (negro,) one of the crew of this vessel. The circumstances are as follows: On yesterday morning the boatswain, I .C.[sic] Walton, fell overboard from the forecastle, and was saved from drowning by Joseph B. Noil, seaman, who was below on the berth deck at the time of the accident, and hearing the cry ‘man overboard,’ ran on deck, 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. The weather was bitter cold, and had been sleeting, and it was blowing a gale from the northwest at the time. 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.”

No award order was noted for Noil saving his fellow sailor’s life, however, the Navy’s Medal of Honor log book notes that he was in fact awarded the Medal of Honor. Records indicate the medal was sent to him on Jan. 27, 1873, and he acknowledged receiving it on March 4, 1873. Historians presume that the Medal was presented to him aboard the Powhattan.

If it were not for that entry, Noil’s service may have been lost to the ages, but once again, his life and service fades in and out of the unknown. He was discharged on Dec. 17, 1874, but re-enlisted a few days later on Dec. 29 in New York, but this time his full name is listed as Joseph Benjamin Noil. Documents reflect that he was again discharged in 1877 but reenlisted in February 1878. Records of the Bureau of Naval Personnel include “Conduct Book” entries for the USS Powhatan from 1874 to 1884. The book notes Noil’s service and includes the comment “Always 1st class and on time.”

Sometime in May 1881, Noil left the USS Wyoming, a 198-foot sloop. Records indicate that he was admitted to the Naval hospital in Norfolk, Virginia with his rank listed as Captain of the Hold. As with most things surrounding Noil, his illness remains a mystery – the diagnosis is listed as “Paralysis; his mind and body were failing him.” He was transferred to the Government Hospital for the Insane in Washington, D.C., on June 3, 1881.

Records and letters indicate that Noil was married and had two small children. His wife, Sarah wrote several heart-wrenching letters to the hospital. In the first, she expressed concern about her husband and described trying to figure out how she could afford to travel to see him. In the final letter, she thanks the hospital for caring for him to his death on March 21, 1882.

The Government Hospital for the Insane is known today as Saint Elizabeth’s and still operates in the nation’s capital. Records indicate that a tombstone was ordered and that he was buried on hospital grounds. However, a typo on his death certificate led to the mistake being repeated on his headstone. Instead of his grave being marked as Joseph Benjamin Noil, it was instead marked Joseph Benjamin Noel with no indication that the remains buried beneath the ground were those of a Medal of Honor recipient.

Image of Saint Elizabeths Hospital Cemetery

Saint Elizabeths Hospital Cemetery

For nearly 130 years, Joseph Benjamin Noil was missing and nearly forgotten. If it wasn’t for the efforts of members of the Medal of Honor Historical Society of the United States working with members of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, his mismarked grave may have never been found in 2011.

A ceremony will be held Friday, April 29, at 11a.m. honoring Noil with a Medal of Honor headstone befitting of his service and bearing the correct spelling of his name. The ceremony will take place at the Saint Elizabeth’s Hospital Cemetery (East Campus) for those wishing to attend the event.

For more information about burial and memorial benefits available to Veterans, including those Veterans buried in private cemeteries such as Saint Elizabeths, visit the National Cemetery Administration.

To attend the event, please contact Maureen Jais-Mick via email at Maureen.jais-mick@dc.gov  or by phone by calling 202-299-5220.

Editor’s note: This blog posting relied heavily on a joint report by filed by Gayle Alvarez and Bart Armstrong of the Medal of Honor Historical Society. VAntage Point applauds their individual efforts as well as those of the Society in preserving the history of those who have been awarded our nation’s highest honor.

Author

Gary Hicks

  is a public affairs specialist and serves as the senior writer in the Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs. He is a former managing editor of a daily newspaper and served in both the Army and Air Force prior to joining VA in 2006. Gary’s wife is an Air Force Senior NCO stationed at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland.

Comments

  1. Mike Walker    

    I hope any remaining relatives of this hero were able to be located and the full rights of such a hero have been bestowed to them? Thank you for this great article as well.

  2. William F. Dexter    

    This is a great story that reflects the high level of pride that we, as a nation, have in our brave service members and it demonstrates the effort that dedicated historians will go to revive the lost stories of bravery and valor. As a third generation combat veteran, I am proud of my service and am honored to have served with so many courageous and selfless volunteers.

    1. Tom Comeau    

      Yeah, and that medal should make Joseph feel much honored—if he could feel anything at all. It’s more intended to make the donors feel good than it is the recipient.

  3. D. SANTOS - US ARMY RETIRED    

    ¡¡…IT’S BEEN AN HONOR FOR ME, TO HAD SERVED IN THE US ARMY FOR 24 YEARS…!! ¡¡THAT HAD GIVEN ME A GLIMPSE ON HOW OUR HEROES SERVICE MEMBERS HAD GIVEN TO OUR NATION…!! ¡¡ALL OF US GAVE SOMETHING.., OTHERS GAVE ALL.., THEIRS LIVES OR HEALTHINESS TO KEEP OUR NATION, AND WORLD DEMOCRACIES UP…!! ¡¡LONG LIVE THE USA ARMED FORCES SERVICEMEMBERS.., AND GOD BLESS AMERICA…!!

  4. Michael Perez Russell    

    No disrespect intended for this Man who had selflessly reacted to the call of Man Overboard. This is a truly a Great story that reflects the mans courage and quick reaction to what every sailor dreads to hear,
    “Man Overboard’.

    What I didn’t see in the article, is what being born in Nova Scotia as a African have anything to do with Puerto Rico. There is No mention of anything with the Nation of Puerto Rico ?.
    Was his ship stationed out of Puerto Rico ? Was his wife a Puerto Rican ?

    Again, there is No disrespect intended for this Mans reaction when hearing the call of Man Overboard. A call everyone dreads to hear when out to sea, as a Civilian or Military person.

    1. Teresa Alvarez    

      There is no mention of Puerto Rico because this article is not the one on the Borrinquenos. This article is about a very different recipient of the Medal of Honor.

  5. Steve Barusso    

    It is a great tribute to this honorable man who served his country. However it is sad to think there are many more that were buried with little fanfare as they deserved. Hopefully some relative is out there to honor this great American hero Joseph Benjamin Noil.

  6. Deborah Mason    

    Thank you for the research and great article on Seaman Joseph Noil. I served in the U.S. Army for 10 years.

  7. Stephan Wayne Malsbury    

    It’s good to know the Honor of our fellow sailor.

  8. Peter Francis    

    Wow, great story. Thank you.

  9. SFC Karen Miriam Chamblliss-Abraham, US Army Retired    

    My personal thanks go to Gayle Alvarez and Bart Armstrong of the Medal of Honor Historical Society for the investigative background research on this service members life and military service. This man’s family will hopefully now become aware of his courage and braveness in saving the life of another. How proud I am for being part of the military.

  10. DENNIS SCHANTZ    

    I would appreciate if someone would enlighten me about this award of the “Medal of Honor”. The MOH is awarded for heroism in times of war or conflict, but in 1872 there was not any war/conflict. I do admire this sailors bravery, but the act of heroism displayed would normally warrant the Navy, Marine Corps Medal. I must be missing some information, so any information will be greatly appreciated.

    1. Megan Moloney    

      The Medal of Honor was established early in the Civil War to recognize acts of valor and heroism by members of the Union’s armed forces. From the information we’ve found online, initially, the criteria were broad. In 1942, the criteria were considerably narrowed, recognizing only acts of “extreme bravery above and beyond the call of duty.”

      1. Bart Armstrong    

        The Medal of Honor in Civil War days was issued for criteria that has been changed quite a bit over the years. In CW days it was the ONLY medal available from bravery Over 130 Medals were awarded for sailors who saved or tried to save shipmates and civilians during the entire history of the medal.

        One must remember that in those days the Medal of Honor was the ONLY medal the military had to award these heroes. Today there are something like about 85 different awards covering a wide range of events and depth of heroism involved in each.

        Bart Armstrong, Victoria BC, http://www.canadianmedalofhonor.com

  11. Michael Brown    

    At this point all I can say is: “WOW” !!!!!!! How great it is for this sailor to be recognized for a most heroic deed. Never sailed the North Atlantic,only the Western Pacific, South China Sea etc., but have heard how treacherous it can be. A selfless act of heroism on the part of an almost forgotten fellow sailor !!!!! My hat is off to the two research societies who worked tirelessly to bring this almost forgotten Medal of Honor winner to a place where he belongs.

  12. Jay Fredman    

    It is great that Seaman Noil is finally the proper and correct recognition for his time in service and especially for his heroic act of saving a fellow shipmates life under terrible weather conditions.

    One thing that stood out for me was how different it was back then in regards to being considered for the Medal of Honor. I could be misinterpreting what I read or I am reading more into it then it is. It seems that it takes greater heroic action to be even considered as a possible candidate for the Medal of Honor today compared to Seaman Noil’s time in service.

    1. Megan Moloney    

      Jay, the Medal of Honor was established early in the Civil War. From the information we’ve found online, initially, the criteria were broad. In 1942, the criteria were considerably narrowed, recognizing only acts of “extreme bravery above and beyond the call of duty.”

      1. Jay Fredman    

        Megan, thank you for the clarification. That is what I suspected but I was not sure.

  13. Thomas Leigh-Kendall    

    Triva, it is the MEDAL OF HONOR, it not the congressional any thing, please do not degrade a hero’s honors.

    1. Megan Moloney    

      You are correct, the award is the Medal of Honor. However the Congressional Medal of Honor Society is the organization of those who have received the medal. You can read more about them here: http://www.cmohs.org/

  14. jim riffe    

    bless you for telling this wonderful story, thank you so much,

    1. Bart Armstrong    

      Megan, the use of the term CONGRESSIONAL was a requirement of Congress when it allowed the Society of MOH recipients to form..and thus, their name is the CONGRESSIONAL MOH Society, and its Foundation. The medal, as you say is often called the Congressional MOH but, as you note, this is the WRONG name.
      Bart Armstrong, CD

  15. Markus J    

    It is shameful! … American (& world) history is full of forgotten heroes and humanitarians either because of their race or because it did not suit the government’s agenda.

  16. Thomas Scott McClure 5449501    

    But for the respect for the interred, Why is this man not exhumed and then placed in Arlington National Cemetery where he belongs, Expense? Race? Who is doing the thinking on this?

  17. Ed Beasley    

    There is no doubt about Petty Officer Noil’s heroism, and he rightfully deserves recognition for his valor. But, according to this article, the heroic act was performed outside of combat conditions. The DOD criteria state:
    The Medal of Honor is the highest military decoration that may be awarded by the United States government. It is presented by the President of the United States, in the name of Congress, and is conferred only upon members of the United States Armed Forces who distinguish themselves through conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty:
    •While engaged in action against an enemy of the United States;
    •While engaged in military operations involving conflict with an opposing foreign force; or
    •While serving with friendly foreign forces engaged in an armed conflict against an opposing armed force in which the United States is not a belligerent party.”
    Perhaps the “Medal of Honor” awarded him was not the combat commendation which is the highest decoration; or, the full story of Noil’s valor was not given. This is an important point in view of the current “progressive” tendency to redefine everything sacred. It would be a tragedy to dishonor this brave sailor to fit someone’s social/political agenda.

    1. Megan Moloney    

      Ed, from the information we’ve found online, initially, the criteria were broad. It wasn’t until 1942 that the criteria were considerably narrowed, recognizing only acts of “extreme bravery above and beyond the call of duty.”

      1. Bart Armstrong    

        Actually it was tightened up by the buffoonery involved in the removal of over 900 medals back in 1919. But that is another story.

        The Defense Act then called for much tougher criteria for the awarding of the MOH and from that came the beginnings of the pyramid of bravery medals that exist to this day.

        Trouble is that when they created new rules they made them retroactive to some 50 years earlier.
        Bart Armstrong CD

  18. Peter Garland    

    Thank you for the story. Quite moving. Glad his CO was able to recognize him and gain him some recognition.

    O how sad at the end.

    Bravo Noil! May the Good Lord reward you and you sail happily in warm weather and waters in heaven with good chow and your wife and buddies nearby.

    PG Ma

  19. JOHN J GARZI    

    The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy. ” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

    1. JAMES E HENSLEY    

      Martin L. King, Jr. was a coward, liar, and a womanizer. Not deserving of recognition regardless of any situation one might imagine.

  20. Bill Tally    

    Great article, and what an admirable service member Joseph Noil must have been – we salute you sir! It is disturbing however, that Saint Elizabeth’s appears to have been cavalier in their handling of this great man’s passing, and it pains one to think they may have done the same in attending with his families remorse.

    1. Bart Armstrong    

      Bill, I must respectfully object to these comments.

      Over 100 years ago it is very possible that St Elizabeth’s did not have the information that we have at out fingertips today.

      It is St Elizabeth’s that has bent over backwords to right this wrong and had spent the last 6 or 7 years on various aspects in order to fix this horrible wrong. I know because I walked the walk most of the way with them, as did several others.

      Many of us have looked hard and wide to find relatives and so far have failed, but it is not through lack of trying.

      We need to salute all those folks, not point fingers.
      Bart Armstrong, CD

  21. Paul Malen Woodward, Jr. USAF Veteran    

    To all my brothers and sisters in arms…..My service to our great nation pales in comparison to the many thousands of others who have served through the decades. I consider it an enormous honor to have served with those who went above and beyond the call of duty. Only in America!!…..

  22. Diana Taylor    

    Thank you so much for this incredible story being brought to light. It’s through such articles that allows me to find out even more about our nations heroes. I thank all of my brothers and sisters in arms both past and present for making our country the great nation that it is today. We may never be made aware of all of the past heroic acts performed by our unknown heroes; but it’s good to know that such acts aren’t going unnoticed and unrecognized by our federal government.

  23. SFC Clifford D Fields, US Army Ret.    

    This is great. I applaud those who made this happen. I have an acquaintance to a Vietnam War Veteran – USMC who is a recipient of the Silver Star and Bronze Medal with Valor. I’m speaking of Charles Withers. This veteran is currently having some challenging health issues resulting from that War. I appreciate if someone could put an effort in elevating this Comrade Charles Withers from Silver Star to a Medal of Honor. Thanks and Blessings to All.

  24. David M. Scheffler    

    Thank you for the article, God Bless all of you and keep up the good (Great) work. It is never too late to correct a wrong or error and I for one applaud your efforts. I live in the DMV and often visit my Shipmates and other Military Heroes in Arlington National Cemetery, ALL are Heroes. As result of this article, I just added another Hero, Brother and Shipmate to my list of Friends to visit, I will visit Saint Elizabeth’s Cemetery and spend some time with Joe and perhaps spin a yarn or two while I am there.
    Funny thing, as I walk among the Headstones; other than weathering and some style differences, each of our Heroes are interred in a respectful and sacred burial location. The location is NOT determined by the color of their skin, education or social status rather by their service to our country. When we are deployed at (or under) the sea or find yourself trudging through waist deep snow or scorching sand in a foreign, hostile country we quickly find out we have more in common with one another than we have differences, we are a family. Brothers and Sisters in arms are family and each has the other’s Six.
    I praise All who worked on behalf of Petty Officer Joseph Benjamin Noil, to correct the errors and correct his headstone. Fair Winds and Following Seas, Shipmate!

  25. Cynthia Rossetti    

    A Hero no doubt. A surprise from the VA????

  26. TigreNoir    

    My family served in every US war in the 20th century. I know the neglect by the news media. There are many more honorable African-Americans that need their stories to be told.

  27. JAMES E HENSLEY    

    Noil did nothing deserving award of a “Medal Of Honor”, regardless of how narrow or how broad criteria, as such existed, might have been. It was a deed of heroic nature. No doubt of that. But that is all it was. Noil was not engaged in combat,
    nor were others on the ship. The criteria even then were not so broad as to merit award of the “Medal Of Honor”.

    The entire story is part of the current campaign to issue (or reissue) awards and decorations solely to be doing that. Nothing else, and for no other reasons.

    1. Mike Perez    

      As a Vietnam Nam vet I recognize and and salute the actions of Mr. Niles and consider them honorable and the criteria for being awarded the MOH has changed from that era. His actions were honorable and life threatening to himself and therefore merit his award. I disagree with your minimization of his honorable actions and placing his own life in jeapordy for his fellow sailor.

  28. Gerald Chernicoff    

    I appreciate the time and effort made by the Society to right this wrong. Seaman Noil it appears, without any disregard for his own safety acted bravely in rescuing a fellow sailor. As in present wars and past conflicts, we learn of the heroic deeds whereby the serviceman or now woman act to save their battle buddies.

    Gerald Chernicoff
    LTC IN, USAR RETIRED

  29. Jerry Kosik    

    I may have missed it but would love to see a photo of his grave stone in this article.

  30. Maureen jais-Mick    

    Speaking on behalf of Saint Elizabeths Hospital, it’s difficult to know what went wrong in 1882 when Seaman Noil died. We know that his name was misspelled “Noel” on the death certificate – but who prepared the certificate? Was it someone at the hospital or was it done by a city official who misread a hospital clerk’s sloppy handwriting? His status as a MOH recipient doesn’t appear in the records that we have and his wife Sarah Jane didn’t mention it in the existing letters. Quite rightly, she was more concerned with Joseph’s care and the fact that financial constraints kept her from seeing him before he died or even attending his burial. If the hospital knew and did nothing, shame on us!

    On a brighter note, Joseph was buried in the section of the hospital cemetery reserved for Navy men who died in our care. So he has spent the past 130+ years resting among his comrades. And as he showed, he would have put his life on the line for any one of them. Maureen Jais-Mick

  31. Joye Lynn Barnes    

    Great story, just reminds me of how acts during war time can be overlooked or changed. My Dad WWII point guard lead in 8 battles as he walked through 8 European countries after landing on Normandy beech as an 18 year old from Casper Wyo. After one mission safely leading his platoon through dangerous territory, breaking his wrist. He was told that he just earned himself a Silver medal. Well after the war and returning on a hospital ship.much was forgotten in the craziness that was the end of the war. Thank goodness he came home. And 45 years later and reviews of records. He was awarded a Bronze Star. We and He are proud of his heroism. Although it was not the award he was told he earned in action .And the injury he lived with his very full life. To my Dad the great Clifford D. Marshall Jr. now deceased, never forgotten and dearly loved. I am honored to be the daughter of this great man and wish I could have followed in his footsteps as so many have in our great nation sincerely. J.L. Marshall Barnes. Thanks for letting me spill my heart. I would love to be involved in recording the stories of others. I have been given taped interviews of WWII veterans recorded by a friend LTC Clarke Brandt in Colorado. that I am transcribing. This history is of great interest to me. Any contributions or direction inm y research would be greatly appreciated. Thank you for an inspiring story. It shows that my hobby is not unfounded.

  32. Linda B Greer    

    I wish there was some explanation for his frequent percolating in and out of the Navy. Was there some kind of misconduct against him because of his race? Or did he struggle with some chronic health issue?

  33. Will Carpenter    

    Thanks for a thought-provoking article.

  34. Bart Armstrong    

    News Flash… a US author and historian has jumped into this story in a very big way.
    He has found a cornerstone piece to this puzzle. In fact many.

    He has found relatives of Joseph Noil.

    More about this will no doubt be released in the days to come…

    This very blog site can take some of the credit by carrying the story in the first place.

    Bravo Zulu to all concerned.

    Bart Armstrong CD, Victoria BC
    http://www.canadianmedalofhonor.com

  35. Payne, Travis L B G    

    This story is proof that no matter how much time passes, and the country matures in its own history, valor is not forgotten. I thank the Congressional Medal of Honor and Medal of Honor Societies for not forgetting the pasts of this nations veterans and hero’s

  36. jack mabry    

    I realize the standards to receive a Medal Of Honor a hundred and fifty years ago were far less than they are now, but since his act did not involve combat, he should not receive a medal of honor. There are other honors he could be entitled to, but the Medal of Honor is not one of them. Doing so, lessens what many brave men did, often posthumously.

  37. Jeff States    

    There are times when a story needs no additional comments. Congratulations to those who unearthed the facts about this forgotten man and his medal of honor award. BRAVO to Seaman Noil whose exploits are now a matter of record for all time.

  38. Noel James Dupont    

    A Hero is one who is seen by others, not themselves! I Honor this man in his selflessness as should we all. When he cast himself into the sea it was without malice nor self regard. That’s a hero! If he had died would another have stepped up…many have throughout history some discovered other not yet. Thank you for gallant efforts by Gayle Alvarez and Bart Armstrong of the Medal of Honor Historical Society and your future pursues.
    How very proud his family must be.

    Semper Fi
    Noel Dupont

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