May 22 , 2022
Navy Ordinary Seaman Robert Augustus Sweeney, Awarded MoH Twice
First action: USS Kearsarge Second action: USS Jamestown,
First action: Hampton Roads, Virginia Second action: Brooklyn Navy Yard
First action: October 26, 1881: “Serving on board the U.S.S. Kearsarge, at Hampton Roads, Va., 26 October 1881, Sweeney jumped overboard and assisted in saving from drowning a shipmate who had fallen overboard into a strongly running tide.”
Second action: December 20, 1883: “Serving on board the U.S.S. Yantic, at the Navy Yard, New York, 20 December 1883, Sweeney rescued from drowning A.A. George, who had fallen overboard from the U.S.S. Jamestown.”
- RANK: ORDINARY SEAMAN
- CONFLICT/ERA: INTERIM 1871 - 1899
- MILITARY SERVICE BRANCH: U.S. NAVY
- MEDAL OF HONOR ACTION DATE: DECEMBER 20, 1883
- MEDAL OF HONOR ACTION PLACE: NEW YORK NAVAL YARD, NEW YORK, USA
Second Award: Serving on board the U.S.S. Yantic, at the Navy Yard, New York, 20 December 1883, Sweeney rescued from drowning A.A. George, who had fallen overboard from the U.S.S. Jamestown.
- ACCREDITED TO: NEW JERSEY
- AWARDED POSTHUMOUSLY: NO
- PRESENTATION DATE & DETAILS: OCTOBER 18, 1884
- DIED: DECEMBER 19, 1890
- BURIED: CALVARY CEMETERY (UNKNOWN GRAVE), WOODSIDE, NY
Prior to World War II, it was possible to receive the Medal of Honor for acts of bravery during peacetime. One such recipient, Robert Augustus Sweeney, earned the award not once, but twice.
Sweeney was serving in the Navy aboard the Mohican-class sloop-of-war USS Kearsarge in October 1881, when a shipmate fell overboard. Without concern for himself, Sweeney jumped into the water after the man and, despite the strong tide, saved him from drowning, earning his first Medal of Honor. Sweeney earned his second medal two years later in December 1883 while he was serving aboard a wooden-hulled screw gunboat, USS Yantic, docked at the Navy Yard in Brooklyn, New York. A boy on another docked ship fell overboard, prompting Sweeney to perform another rescue.
To date, Sweeney is the only African American to have earned the Medal of Honor twice, one of only 19 double recipients in total.
Sweeney was born on February 20, 1853, on the Caribbean island of Montserrat. The Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs 1963 print Medal of Honor 1863-1963 stated that he had been born in Montreal, Canada but this was corrected by the 1995 Facts on File two volume work, Medal of Honor Recipients 1863-1994.
Sweeney joined the Navy in New Jersey. By October 26, 1881, he was serving as an ordinary seaman on the USS Kearsarge. While Kearsarge was anchored in Hampton Roads on that day, Seaman E.M. Christoverson fell from a Jacob's ladder attached to the ship's lower boom and landed in the water. Christoverson's inability to swim, combined with a strong tidal current and rough seas, led to him quickly beginning to sink. Seeing this, Sweeney jumped overboard without hesitation and went to his aid. In his panic, Christoverson latched onto Sweeney and dragged him under the water. Sweeney was able to break free, but was grabbed and dragged under a second time. One of Kearsarge's officers, Cadet Midshipman John B. Bernadon, then dived into the water and swam to help the men. Together, Sweeney and Bernadon were able to keep Christoverson afloat and, once their shipmates had thrown them a rope, pulled him back aboard ship. For this action, Sweeney was awarded his first Medal of Honor six days later, on November 1.
On the morning of December 20, 1883, the training ship USS Jamestown was at dock at the Brooklyn Navy Yard when it shifted berth and made fast alongside the USS Yantic. In the afternoon, at about 4:15, a boy named A A George belonging to the Jamestown fell overboard from a plank between the Jamestown and the Yantic. The ship's log of the Yantic stated that he 'would have probably drown, if it had not been for the prompt action on the part of R. A. Sweeney (O. Sea) of this vessel, and one of the Jamestown's crew (J. W. Norris), who jumped overboard to his assistance'. The letter recommending Sweeney and Norris for Medals of Honor was written by the Commanding Officer of the Jamestown, Commander Allen D. Brown. Probably because Commander Brown recommended both men, the official citation incorrectly stated Sweeney was a member of the crew of Jamestown.Sweeney died on December 19, 1890, at age 37 and is buried at Calvary Cemetery in Queens, New York in an unknown grave.
Medal of Honor citation
Sweeney's first citation reads:
Serving on board the U.S.S. Kearsarge, at Hampton Roads, Va., 26 October 1881, Sweeney jumped overboard and assisted in saving from drowning a shipmate who had fallen overboard into a strongly running tide.
His second citation:
Serving on board the U.S.S. Jamestown, at the Navy Yard New York, 20 December 1883, Sweeney rescued from drowning A. A. George, who had fallen overboard from that vessel.