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Petersburg Medals of Honor: Three Examples of Soldierly Devotion




Sergeant. Co. E, 164th N. Y. Inf.
Born in Ireland, July 1, 1846.

Sergeant John Brosnan was in command of Company E, One hundred and sixty-fourth New York Infantry, at the battle of Petersburg, Va., June 16, 1864, because so many of his superior officers had been either killed or wounded. The struggle was desperate and, after repeated charges, the Federal line began to waver.

Sergeant Brosnan sprang to the front and called on his men to renew the charge. They did, but were forced into a ravine, where they made a fierce rally. When night closed in on the worn-out soldiers and they were shielded from the enemy by the impenetrable darkness, they threw up breastworks. Early the following morning, Brosnan’s attention was called to loud groans coming from a direction exposed to a very heavy fire. Investigation showed that a Union soldier had been wounded by concealed rebels. Sergeant Brosnan decided to rescue him, although he fully realized the danger of the task. Exposed to the fire of rebel sharpshooters, he succeeded in reaching the dying soldier, who proved to be Corporal Michael Carroll, of Company E.

“For God’s sake, Sergeant, lie down or you will be killed,” the moribund whispered feebly. The plucky sergeant lifted his comrade upon his arms and with great difficulty carried him out of reach of the enemy’s fire and behind the breastworks. During this heroic rescue he himself was struck above the right elbow, entailing the loss of the arm. Thus the sergeant became a cripple while saving a wounded comrade.



Private. Co. 85th Penn. Inf.
Born at Ohlopyle, Pa., Jan. 15. 1845.

The same day, when the Union forces had retired from Petersburg to Bermuda Hundred, Private Francis Morrison, of Company H, Eighty-fifth Pennsylvania Infantry, performed a similar deed of heroic devotion.

The regiment was in full retreat under the murderous fire of General Pickett’s advancing troops, when Private Jesse Dial, of Morrison’s Company, was struck by a bullet and left behind. Private Morrison saw his comrade fall and, with utter disregard of a hail of bullets, advanced towards the enemy and was soon at the side of his friend. As he tenderly raised him from the ground he discovered to his dismay that Dial was dead. He then carried the corpse back to his regiment.

A month later, in a charge at Deep Bottom, Va., Private Morrison himself was wounded, a musket ball passing through the breast and leaving a wound in his back which the most skillful surgery failed to heal up. The award of the Medal of Honor was the Government’s graceful appreciation of such bravery and soldierly qualities.



John H. Harbourne,
Private, Co. K, 29th Mass. Inf.
Born in Birmingham, Eng.,Sept. 9, 1840.

John H. Harbourne, of the Twenty-ninth Massachusetts Infantry, also won his medal in this action [The Second Battle of Petersburg]. In the heat of the conflict the entire color-guard of the Twenty-ninth Massachusetts Infantry was killed, whereupon Private Harbourne took the colors and carried them at the head of the regiment. The Confederates could not withstand the vigorous assault and soon the charging column was on the breastworks and into the redoubt. Private Harbourne with his flag was close to the Confederate colors, lying at the side of their wounded color-bearer, and in an instant had them stripped from the staff and tucked safely under his blouse. A moment after he was wounded in the foot and fell to the ground, but upon recovering from the first shock he found that the redoubt was taken. Although he was suffering great pain from his wound, he managed to capture three rebels and brought them into the Union lines, where he turned them and the Confederate flag over to General Burnside. Next morning Private Harbourne was ordered to report at head-quarters and was there thanked and commended by General Burnside, and sent to the hospital.


Read about even more Medal of Honor winners at the Siege of Petersburg:


  1. Beyer, Walter F. and Keydel, Oscar F. Deeds of Valor: How America’s Heroes Won the Medal of Honor…, Volume 1 (The Perrien – Keydel  Company: 1901), pp. 363-365
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