Navy Seaman Is Only Black Man To Earn Medal of Honor Twice

By Katie Lange
DoD News, Defense Media Activity

This blog is part of a weekly series called “Medal of Honor Monday,” in which we’ll highlight one of the nearly 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the honor of wearing the U.S. military’s highest medal for valor.

To continue honoring our African-American Medal of Honor recipients during African-American History Month, we’d be remiss if we didn’t highlight Navy Ordinary Seaman Robert Augustus Sweeney, who saved the lives of two different people at two different times in the late 1800s.

DoD graphic by Regina Ali

DoD graphic by Regina Ali

Sweeney is one of just 19 men – and the only African-American – to have been awarded the Medal of Honor twice. His medals were some of the few that were awarded for actions that occurred during peacetime.

Born in 1853 outside of the U.S., it’s unclear exactly when Sweeney joined the Navy, but he entered into service in New Jersey.

Sweeney earned his first Medal of Honor while serving aboard the USS Kearsarge at Hampton Roads, Virginia, in late October 1881. Records show that Sweeney witnessed a shipmate fall overboard in a strong tide, and disregarding his own life, he jumped over the side of the ship to save the man from drowning.

Read More: African-Americans Who Broke Barriers

A little more than two years later, in December 1883, Sweeney pulled the same heroic move again. This time he was serving on a ship at the Navy Yard in Brooklyn, New York. A boy on the USS Jamestown fell over the side of that ship, so Sweeney once again jumped in for the rescue, as did another man named J.W. Norris.

Many records show that Sweeney had been on the Jamestown; however, other reports show he had really been on the USS Yantic, which was docked beside the Jamestown. The commanding officer of the Jamestown is the one who recommended both Sweeney and Norris for the Medal of Honor, so that could be why he was mistakenly listed as being a crewmember on the Jamestown.

Sweeney died in 1890 and was reportedly buried at Calvary Cemetery in Queens, New York, even though the cemetery has no record of him.

Since he wasn’t honored in death as a double Medal of Honor recipient should be, we would like to thank him today for his sacrifices.

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