Happy 207th, Herr Freeman, of Mobile Bay (in)Fame(y)

While poking around Pascagoula’s Greenwood Cemetery (I have tons of childhood/teenage stories about this place logged in my time as a “Goula Boy,” but I digress) last week, I paid my respects at the grave of longtime area resident, Martin Freeman, MOH.

Photo: Chris Eger

Born 18 May 1814 in the Prussian port city of Stettin (Szczecin, Poland, today), he took to the sea early in life, and by his late teens, he was in the states where he married a fellow German immigrant and started a family.

Living on the Gulf Coast, he was a well-known Mobile and Pascagoula area (Grant’s Pass/Horn Pass) bar pilot who had the misfortune of being captured in the late summer of 1862 while fishing off Mobile Bay by the Union’s West Gulf Blockading Squadron, under the command of RADM David Farragut (another man with longstanding ties to Pascagoula) and, despite Freeman’s “protests of not being interested in the war and only wanting to fish, was engaged by the fleet as a civilian pilot.”

Fast forward to the Battle of Mobile Bay in August 1864, and Freeman was aloft in the rigging of Farragut’s flagship, the steam sloop-of-war USS Hartford, so he could better see the changing bars and currents at the mouth of the sometimes treacherous (and mine-strewn) bay then issue course corrections as needed.

Farragut’s report of the battle mentions Freeman to the Navy in glowing terms:

The last of my staff, and to whom I would call the notice of the Department, is not the least in importance. I mean Pilot Martin Freeman. He has been my great reliance in all difficulties in his line of duty. During the action he was in the maintop [elevated platform on main or middle mast], piloting the ships into the bay. He was cool and brave throughout, never losing his self-possession. This man was captured early in the war in a fine fishing smack which he owned, and though he protested that he had no interest in the war and only asked for the privilege of fishing for the fleet, yet his services were too valuable to the captors as a pilot not to be secured. He was appointed a first-class pilot and has served us with zeal and fidelity, and has lost his vessel, which went to pieces on Ship Island. I commend him to the Department.

His service was so influential to the battle that he was a civilian recipient (later serving as an Acting Volunteer Lieutenant, a rank he was only issued in October 1864) of the MOH, a rarity. Only eight other civilians– to include a fellow pilot in Navy Civil War service, John Ferrell– hold that honor.

Freeman’s citation, issued 31 December 1864:

The President of the United States of America, in the name of Congress, takes pleasure in presenting the Medal of Honor to Mr. Martin Freeman, a United States Civilian, for extraordinary heroism in action as Pilot of the flagship, U.S.S. HARTFORD, during action against Fort Morgan, rebel gunboats and the ram Tennessee, in Mobile Bay, Alabama, 5 August 1864. With his ship under terrific enemy shellfire, Civilian Pilot Martin Freeman calmly remained at his station in the maintop and skillfully piloted the ships into the bay. He rendered gallant service throughout the prolonged battle in which the rebel gunboats were captured or driven off, the prize ram Tennessee forced to surrender, and the fort successfully attacked.

The Pilot for the USS HARTFORD at the Battle of Mobile Bay, Aug 5, 1864. Photo by Robira, New OrleansDescription: Courtesy of I.B. Millner, Morgantown, NC. Catalog #: NH 49431

His name would be listed as the only officer besides the master aboard the 4th rate gunboat USS Sam Houston in 1865.

Freeman continued his service after the war, even successfully fending off a court marshal lodged against him in 1866 while at the time the seniormost officer aboard the gunboat USS Cowslip (which had raided Biloxi Bay during the war).

Eventually, Freeman became the USLHS lighthouse keeper on Horn Island, off Pascagoula, which is now part of Gulf Islands National Seashore, from 1874 to 1894. His wife Anna and son, Martin, Jr., were listed interchangeably as assistant keepers. The light changed from an old old screw-pile lighthouse offshore to one located on a hill actually atop the island in 1887.

This image from 1892 almost certainly shows Freeman and his wife, Anna, as well as one of his children. NARA 26-LG-36-70

A closer look. Note the rarely-seen USLHS uniform and cap. 

It was while at Horn Island, tending his light and watching the Gulf, that Freeman penned a private letter about the famous battle he was a part of to a fellow veteran that eventually made it into the New York Times and caused some heartburn as Freeman made the record clear that he was in the rigging with the good Admiral that day, higher aloft than Farragut. For such a sin as to point out a historical fact, he was chastised in responding letters published by the Times from those who felt he was trying to besmirch the Admiral’s legacy.

It wasn’t just Farragut up there…

In the end, Freeman’s old injuries sustained from an explosion of a mine at Fort Morgan in September 1864 forced him to move his family ashore from Horn Island to Pascagoula in early 1894, where he died on 11 September 1894 at the residence of his son-in-law, Alf Olsson. His subsequent funeral was reportedly well-attended. 

His family still lives in the area and his grave is well-maintained, with the vintage gravesite covered by a concrete slab, likely in the 1960s as part of state regulation, and a new VA marker installed. (Photo: Chris Eger)

With Mississippi only a decade or so off from Reconstruction, his obituary in the Pascagoula Chronicle-Star only mentioned his lighthouse service, omitting his wartime record of accomplishments, but does speak well of him.

He was kind and hospital to all who visited the light-house and his jovial disposition won for him a host of friends. He was charitable, and brought up his children in the fear of the Lord.

Incidentally, the beautiful Horn Island light was swept into the Gulf in 1906, taking its keeper at the time, Charles Johnsson, along with his wife and teenage daughter with it.

As for Farragut, an admiral who has had five different warships named in his honor, Pascagoula remembers him fondly as well, and his family also lives in the area.

Farragut has long had a banner across from the Jackson County Courthouse.

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