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.”
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.