WINDSOR — Thomas O’Connell was ill aboard the USS Hartford on Aug. 5, 1864, when he left the sick bay to voluntarily man his battle station.

His job was to operate the shell whip, a device that lifted ammunition up to the gun deck of Adm. David Farragut’s flagship.

His courage cost the Union navy sailor his right hand, severed by a Confederate artillery shell during the Civil War’s Battle of Mobile Bay.

Some 150 years later, his grave at Windsor’s Rest Haven Cemetery now finally recognizes O’Connell as a recipient of the U.S. military’s highest decoration, the Medal of Honor.

O’Connell, an Irish immigrant who was living in New York when he joined the Navy, was awarded the Medal of Honor on Dec. 31, 1864, four months after losing his hand. He died in 1899, in Whitefield, at the age of 56 or 57, and was buried in what was then known as the Sand Hill Cemetery in Windsor.

But his gravestone made no mention of O’Connell being a Medal of Honor recipient.

His now somewhat blackened original gravestone says, only, “Thomas O’Connell, 1842-1899, U.S. Navy.”

But, thanks to a local man and three Medal of Honor related national organizations, a new gold-lettered stone sits in the ground next to O’Connell’s original stone.

It states: “Thomas O’Connell, 1842-1899, Medal of Honor, coal heaver, U.S. Navy, USS Hartford.”

“He’s been buried here for quite a while, and is finally getting some recognition after so many years,” said Tom Reed, Windsor’s sexton, who placed the new gravestone this week. “It’s due respect. It’s heartwarming. All veterans should be recognized, one way or another.”

Reed, himself a veteran of the Army and Air Force, said he believes O’Connell is the only Medal of Honor recipient in town. He plans a June 14 ceremony to dedicate the new stone and isn’t sure why the original gravestone wasn’t so marked.

But then again, until a couple of years ago, Reed wasn’t even aware the Medal of Honor recipient was buried in town. He began looking into it after he got a call from Donald Morfe, of the Medal of Honor Historical Society of the United States, asking if there was a Thomas O’Connell buried in any of the town’s cemeteries.

He said he didn’t know, but would find out. He went to the state archives, found a certificate of burial for O’Connell and, after some searching, found his grave in the older section of the now Rest Haven Cemetery, a sprawling cemetery at the intersection of Ridge and Maxcy’s Mill roads. He confirmed there was no mention, not even the “MH” initials to note O’Connell was a Medal of Honor recipient, and got back to Morfe, a researcher for the society which seeks to research, preserve and document the history of people awarded the Medal of Honor.

Morfe worked with the Congressional Medal of Honor Society and Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation to secure a new gravestone for O’Connell, at no cost to the town. The town agreed to install it, and not charge a fee for the installation of the new marker.

“I said yes, anything for a vet,” Reed said. “Especially a Medal of Honor recipient. It’s important, because the military doesn’t get the recognition they really deserve.”

Reed said the three national organizations involved are working to see that Medal of Honor recipients across the country are recognized for their heroic acts.

The Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation’s website notes the organization is dedicated to supporting recipients and “to educating the broader U.S. public about the meaning of the Medal of Honor today, and the exemplary values of courage, sacrifice, selfless service and patriotism embodied by those who have received this prestigious Medal.”

The new grave marker, which Reed estimated would cost about $500 to buy, will be dedicated at 10 a.m., Saturday, June 14. The public is welcome at the dedication.

The 3rd Maine Regiment Volunteer Infantry Civil War reenactors will be on hand for the ceremony. Reed said Morfe, who couldn’t be reached for comment Thursday, said he first contacted people in Whitefield because records indicated O’Connell lived there. Whitefield folks directed Morfe to Windsor, suggesting O’Connell might be buried somewhere there.

Reed said O’Connell apparently had friends in Whitefield, but the Irish immigrant had no other known ties to the area.

“Chances are good after the war, with his disability, he came to Togus (the nearby veterans’ hospital) for medical attention,” Reed said.

O’Connell’s Medal of Honor citation states: “On board the flagship U.S.S. Hartford, during successful attacks against Fort Morgan, rebel gunboats and the ram Tennessee in Mobile Bay on 5 August 1864. Although a patient in the sick bay, O’Connell voluntarily reported to his station at the shell whip and continued to perform his duties with zeal and courage until his right hand was severed by an enemy shellburst.”

Keith Edwards – 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj

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