Decoration Day

May 30 was once set aside as a day to remember those who died in the Civil War, such as U.S. Navy Boatswain's Mate Michael McCormick, who was born in Ireland in 1833 and died on May 19, 1865 at the age of 32. He is buried in Wood National Cemetery in Milwaukee. Photo by Carl Swanson

May 30 was once set aside as a day to remember those who died in the Civil War, such as U.S. Navy Boatswain’s Mate Michael McCormick, who was born in Ireland in 1833 and died on May 19, 1865 at the age of 32. He is buried in Wood National Cemetery in Milwaukee. Photo by Carl Swanson

In 1868, the Grand Army of the Republic, a veteran’s organization for Union Civil War veterans, called for May 30th to be observed annually as a day to remember the 620,000 Americans killed in the Civil War. Originally called Decoration Day, the May 30th holiday gradually became known as Memorial Day. In 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, moving four holidays, including Memorial Day to specified Mondays to create three-day weekends.

On this Decoration Day, take a moment to remember U.S. Navy Boatswain’s Mate Michael McCormick, who served aboard the U.S.S. Signal, a 190-ton stern-wheel paddle steamer of the type derisively called a “tinclad” for the half-inch steel armor protecting its main deck, sufficient to stop a rifle bullet but offering no protection against cannon shells. Under the plating, the ships were entirely made of wood, Tinclads were cheap, expendable, and, in the words of one naval historian, “complete fire traps.”

The U.S.S. Signal was a “tinclad” paddlewheel steamer built in 1862. Disabled by Confederate artillery fire on the Red River in Louisiana on May 4, 1864, the ship was burned by its crew to prevent its capture. Photo courtesy U.S. Naval Historical Center

The U.S.S. Signal was a “tinclad” paddlewheel steamer built in 1862 and destroyed in battle on May 4, 1864. Photo courtesy U.S. Naval Historical Center

On May 4, 1864, the Signal, was proceeding downstream on the Red River in Louisiana when it was fired upon by Confederate cavalry. A running battle ensued for the next four miles until the Signal encountered sister ship U.S.S. Covington and the John Warner, an Army transport ship. Trapped near Dunn’s Bayou near Alexandria, Louisiana, the gunboats exchanged point-blank cannon fire with Confederate field artillery on both banks. At one point in the uneven fight, the Signal was hit 38 times in four minutes.


Boatswain’s Mate Michael McCormick, manning one of the ship’s eight cannons, had been wounded early in the engagement but continued loading and firing his gun until ordered by officers to stand down. A white flag was raised over the shattered vessel and the surviving members of the original crew of 90 set fire to the ship to prevent its capture, then made their way to shore where they were taken prisoner.

Michael McCormick was one of six members of the Signal’s crew to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor for heroic conduct during the doomed ship’s final battle. He died a year after the battle, most likely from the lingering effects of the wounds he received, and is buried in Milwaukee’s Wood National Cemetery.

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