“My Shirt Took Fire Burning Me Terribly”: USS Juniata Sailors Recount their Fort Fisher Injuries

Service in the Civil War Navy brought with it a much reduced risk of injury or death when compared to the army- but it was far from safe. Sailors consistently faced risks such as disease, shipboard accidents and drowning during their time as Bluejackets. Inevitably, casualties also occurred in combat. For those who recovered, the damage inflicted on their bodies could be life altering. To explore this further, we decided to take a look at some of the Bluejackets wounded during the U.S. Navy’s bombardment of Fort Fisher, North Carolina, on Christmas Eve 1864. Specifically, we honed in on some of those who went into action aboard one Sloop-of-War, USS Juniata, that day.

The December 1864 action at Fort Fisher was part of a combined naval and army operation to take the fortification, which guarded the Cape Fear River and the Blockade-Running port of Wilmington. USS Juniata was among those vessels assigned to bombard the Rebel defences in support of a planned land-based assault. Ultimately this first attempt at silencing Fort Fisher failed, but a second effort (known as the Second Battle of Fort Fisher) succeeded in mid-January 1865. During the course of the first battle, Juniata and other U.S. warships flung thousands of projectiles at Fort Fisher, working their crews hard. Although the Confederates responded, it was not their fire that proved most deadly to the U.S. sailors- it was their own guns. Rear-Admiral David Dixon Porter admitted as much in his official report of the fighting:

I regret, however, to have to report some severe casualties by the bursting of 100-pounder Parrott cannon. One burst on board the Ticonderoga, killing 6 of the crew and wounding 7 others; another burst on board the Yantic, killing 1 officer and 2 men; another on the Juniata, killing 2 officers and wounding and killing 10 others; another on the Mackinaw, killing 1 officer and wounding 5 others…another on the Quaker City, wounding, I believe, 2 0r 3; another on the Susquehanna, killing and wounding 7, I think [the report of the bursting on Susquehanna was in error]. The bursting of the guns (six in all) much disconcerted the crews of the vessels where the accidents happened, and gave one and all a great distrust of the Parrott 100-pounders, and (as subsequent events proved) they were unfit for service, and calculated to kill more of our men than those of the enemy.

The dead and wounded of USS Juniata following the explosion of her 100-pounder Parrott off Fort Fisher, North Carolina on Christmas Eve 1864. The list of injuries provide grizzly evidence of the horrific injuries such explosions could cause (Official Records).

Given the terrible performance of the Parrotts, many sailors must have been nervous indeed when assigned to crew them. The official casualty list (above) gives the names not only of those who died in the explosion, but also of men who were wounded. Two of the men listed as injured were Ordinary Seaman John Cogan (severe powder burn) and U.S. Marine William Kennedy (fracture right tibia). We decided to explore their pension files to see if it revealed any more details about their injuries, and if they had any long-term impact on their lives.

USS Juniata, on which the 100-pounder exploded on 24th December 1864, severely injuring John Cogan and William Kennedy (Naval History & Heritage Command).

John Cogan is recorded on the Juniata‘s muster roll as a 27-year-old English-born sailor, who had been a steam-fitter at enlistment. But he had seen prior naval service, both as a boy in the 1850s and later under an assumed name earlier in the war. He explained this in later years:

I…enlisted on the USS Ontario in 1852 and was discharged from the Powhatan. My father got me out of this service. I next enlisted August 8th 1861 under the name of John Jones at Philadelphia on the USS Princeton and was transferred to the USS Island Belle, of the Potomac Flotilla and was discharged October 3rd 1862. I enlisted under the name John Jones because I did not want my father to keep me from going to sea. My next enlistment was July 27th 1864 and I served on board the U.S. Ships North Carolina, Minnesota, and Juanita.

Apparently pulled out of the Navy by his father during his first stint as underage, John had taken on alias on his second enlistment. Although there were many reasons why sailors opted to use an assumed name, not wanting their family to be able to track them was often given as a rationale.

Extract from the logbook of USS Juniata from Christmas Eve 1864, describing her action at Fort Fisher and the bursting of the 100-pounder- Click to Enlarge (NARA).

Following his injuries resulting from the Juniata explosion, John spent the next 10 months receiving treatment. After his recovery and his discharge, he spent a little over a year in the famed 7th US Cavalry in the West between 1867-8 before returning to civilian life in Alexandria, Virginia. When in his 70s, he gave a detailed description of what the explosion did to him, and how it impacted his life:

[I have] defective eyesight and impaired hearing caused by shock of the bursting of the Parrott Gun…and by being burned on the face, left eye, breast and back. The explosion of the gun knocked me aft about 20 or 25 feet, my cap went overboard and my shirt took fire burning me terribly…My face was swollen to twice its natural size, my left eye was swollen shut, my mouth was so sore and shut so tight they had to pry it open to give me something to eat, while my breast, side and back were a raw sore for a long time so that they had to keep it done up in cotton and saturated with oil. My eye was kept closed for a couple of months by the swelling about it, and when the swelling went down so that I could open my eye, the sight of it was nearly gone. When my face got well of the powder burn my left eye was weak, and it pained me. I also had a severe pain in the left side of my head. The left eye has always been weak, and the sight at least was half gone ever since the powder burn healed…I was rendered unconscious by the injury, and was so bad for three or four weeks that I scarcely knew what was going on about me. When I began to fully understand what had happened, I noticed I could hear very little out of my left ear, and my hearing has always been more or less affected ever since…The shock affected my whole system, and I have I have shortness of breath which I think is because my chest was affected by the shock and powder burn.

While John was certainly trying to reinforce to the pension board the impact of his 1864 injuries (he had also suffered from a fall from his horse while in the cavalry, and, if the Navy hospital is to believed, from Syphilis), the detail he provides about the impact of the explosion on his body rings true. The massive toll the explosion took on the men in its vicinity is made all too apparent by the case of William Kennedy.

A 100-pounder Parrott pictured aboard the USS Pawnee during the Civil War. The impact the explosion of such a heavy gun would have on crewmen manning it can be well imagined. David Dixon Porter was of the opinion that the guns “kill more of our men than those of the enemy” (Library of Congress).

William Kennedy was serving as U.S. Marine aboard Juniata on Christmas Even 1864. Born in Ireland, we can find him on the 1860 Census living in Philadelphia’s Second Ward, where he was recorded as a 24-year-old mariner living with his wife Ellen. She was pregnant at the time, and would give birth to a daughter (the first of two children) before the close of that year. At first glance, William’s injury in the Juniata explosion- a fracture of the right tibia- seems relatively minor. But while the surgeon on board had felt “all the wounded are likely to do well”, this was not to be the case for William.

Medical records note that like John Cogan, the explosion had rendered William unconscious. Initially, he seemed to recover- after treatment he even re-entered the service, joining the Navy as a Coal Heaver in 1865. But in actuality the full effects of the explosion were only working their way to the surface. By October 1866, the terrible internal injuries the bursting gun had caused began to manifest fully. A medical examination gave the following report:

The limb [his leg] is not only swollen below the seat of injury but the entire right side is almost entirely paralysed and his mind is so much affected that he is on the verge of imbecility so that he is unfit to follow any business in consequence of both mental and physical disability.

William was admitted to the US Naval Asylum Hospital in Philadelphia, suffering from the physical and mental scars of his Fort Fisher ordeal. He passed away there on 25th April 1867. The official cause of his death was given as hemiplegia- a paralysis of one side of the body- and was directly attributable to the 1864 explosion. Almost two and a half years after the incident, the Fort Fisher explosion was still claiming victims.

A Harper’s Weekly depiction of the bursting of the gun aboard USS Juniata on 24th December 1864. The true horror of some of the injuries the explosion caused can be traced in the naval records (Harper’s Weekly).

Cases such as those of John Cogan and William Kennedy serve as reminders of the risks that Civil War sailors ran, and of the long-term impact life at sea could have on those who survived. This is something we hope to explore further as part of Civil War Bluejackets, particularly as we seek to link the men you record on the muster sheets to other documents such as pension files and hospital records. And remember, if you are interested in coming on-board as a volunteer on our Zooniverse transcription team to help us with that process, you can do so here.


U.S. Navy Muster Rolls

U.S. Navy Hospital Tickets

U.S. Navy Pension Files

U.S. Navy Enlistment Rendezvous Returns

U.S. Navy Log Books

Official Records of the War of the Rebellion

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