Robert Sweeney: the first, only African-American to earn the Medal of Honor twice

Robert Sweeney: the first, only African-American to earn the Medal of Honor twice

Amongst blacks in the U.S. Army, the Medal of Honor (highest military decoration) is often viewed as unobtainable, not being often recognized with th

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Amongst blacks in the U.S. Army, the Medal of Honor (highest military decoration) is often viewed as unobtainable, not being often recognized with the award. Seaman Robert Augustus Sweeney may have broken that jinx as he did not just win a Medal of Honor but won it twice during peacetime.

The feat brings to mind the question of what Robert did to have achieved the near-impossible honor.

Robert was a sailor in the United States Navy and one of only 19 servicemen. He was awarded his first medal for jumping overboard from the U.S.S. Kearsarge, then docked at Hampton Roads, Virginia in order to save seaman E.M. Christoverson from drowning. Christoverson fell from a Jacob’s ladder attached to the ship’s lower boom and landed in the water. His inability to dive, combined with a huge tidal current and rough seas almost cost him his life. Sweeney jumped overboard without thinking twice and went to his aid. In his panic, Christoverson latched onto Robert and dragged him under the water.

One of Kearsarge’s officers, Cadet Midshipman John B. Bernadon, being aware of what might happen as both could drown, dived into the water and swam to help them. Together, Sweeney and Bernadon were able to keep Christoverson afloat and once their shipmates had thrown them a rope, pulled him back aboard ship. Bernadon,  who also joined in the rescue was awarded the Medal of Honor alongside Robert. Sweeney got his first Medal of Honor six days after his rescue of Christoverson.

His citation read: “The President of the United States of America, in the name of Congress, his delight at presenting the Medal of Honor (First Award) to Ordinary Seaman Robert Augustus Sweeney, United States Navy, for gallant and heroic conduct while serving on board the U.S.S. Kearsarge, at Hampton Roads, Virginia 26th October, 1881. Ordinary Seaman Sweeney jumped overboard and supported in saving from drowning a shipmate who had fallen overboard into a strongly running tide.

“His second demonstration of unusual bravery, Robert was aboard the training ship USS Jamestown, docked at New York’s Navy Yard on December 20th, 1883 when it shifted berth and made fast alongside the USS Yantic. While in the afternoon, at about 4:15, a boy named A.A. George, belonging to Jamestown , fell overboard from a plank between Jamestown and the Yantic. Brave Robert, jumped overboard along with landsman J.W. Norris to save the boy.”

The recommendation letter for Robert’s and Norris’s Medals of Honor was written by the Commanding Officer of the Jamestown, Commander Allen D. Brown.

For this achievement, his citation read: “The President of the United States of America, in the name of Congress, takes delight in presenting the Medal of Honor (Second Award) to Ordinary Seaman Robert Augustus Sweeney, United States Navy, for gallant and heroic conduct while serving on board the U.S.S. Jamestown, at the Navy Yard New York, 20th, December 1883. Ordinary Seaman Sweeney rescued from drowning A. A. George , who had fallen overboard from that vessel.”

Born on February 20th, 1853, on the Caribbean island of Montserrat. He started his Navy journey in New Jersey. By October 26th, 1881, as an ordinary seaman on the USS Kearsarge.

Unfortunately, the brave hero always coming to the rescue died on December 19th, 1890 at just age 37 and was buried at Calvary Cemetery in Queens, New York in an unknown grave.