Seaman Robert Augustus Sweeney has the unique honor of winning the Medal of Honor twice all during peace time. Given that many African-Americans who served in the U.S. Armed Forces and deserving of the Medal of Honor – the highest military decoration – were overlooked or denied, Sweeney’s feat is impressive.
Sweeney was a sailor in the United States Navy and one of only 19 servicemen. For his first medal, he jumped overboard from the U.S.S. Kearsarge, then docked at Hampton Roads, Virginia in order to save seaman E.M. Christoverson from drowning. Seaman E.M. Christoverson fell from a Jacob’s ladder attached to the ship’s lower boom and landed in the water. His inability to swim, combined with a strong tidal current and rough seas almost took his life. Sweeney jumped overboard without hesitation and went to his aid. In his panic, Christoverson latched onto Sweeney and dragged him under the water.
One of Kearsarge’s officers, Cadet Midshipman John B. Bernadon, seeing that both men could drown, dived into the water and swam to help them. Together, Sweeney and Bernadon were able to keep Christoverson afloat and once their shipmates had thrown them a rope, pulled him back aboard ship. Bernadon was also awarded the Medal of Honor alongside Sweeney. Sweeney got his first Medal of Honor six days after his rescue of Christoverson.
His citation read: “The President of the United States of America, in the name of Congress, takes pleasure in presenting the Medal of Honor (First Award) to Ordinary Seaman Robert Augustus Sweeney, United States Navy, for gallant and heroic conduct while serving on board the U.S.S. Kearsarge, at Hampton Roads, Virginia 26 October 1881. Ordinary Seaman Sweeney jumped overboard and assisted in saving from drowning a shipmate who had fallen overboard into a strongly running tide.
“In his second demonstration of unusual bravery, Sweeney was aboard the training ship USS Jamestown, docked at New York’s Navy Yard on December 20, 1883 when it shifted berth and made fast alongside the USS Yantic. In the afternoon, at about 4:15, a boy named A.A. George belonging to the Jamestown fell overboard from a plank between the Jamestown and the Yantic. Similarly courageous, Sweeney jumped overboard along with landsman J.W. Norris to save him.”
The letter recommending Sweeney and Norris for Medals of Honor was written by the Commanding Officer of the Jamestown, Commander Allen D. Brown.
For this feat, his citation read: “The President of the United States of America, in the name of Congress, takes pleasure in presenting the Medal of Honor (Second Award) to Ordinary Seaman Robert Augustus Sweeney, United States Navy, for gallant and heroic conduct while serving on board the U.S.S. Jamestown, at the Navy Yard New York, 20 December 1883. Ordinary Seaman Sweeney rescued from drowning A. A. George, who had fallen overboard from that vessel.”
Sweeney was born on February 20, 1853, on the Caribbean island of Montserrat. He joined the Navy in New Jersey. By October 26, 1881, he was serving as an ordinary seaman on the USS Kearsarge.
Sweeney died on December 19, 1890 aged 37 and was buried at Calvary Cemetery in Queens, New York in an unknown grave.