Seaman Martin McHugh was not born in the United States, but he served it well. The Irish immigrant joined the U.S. Navy in 1862 – early in the Civil War – and was assigned to the ironclad USS Cincinnati. In May 1863, during the Battle of Vicksburg, the Cincinnati was strafed by heavy artillery fire and began to sink. McHugh helped get his captain and shipmates off the vessel as it went under, while – in the Medal of Honor citation penned by President Abraham Lincoln – “never ceasing to fire until this proud ship went down ‘her colors nailed to the mast.’”
After the war, McHugh moved to Illinois, eventually settling in the town of Danville for about 40 years before his death in 1905. He and his wife were buried in the local Resurrection Cemetery, but his grave went unmarked for over 100 years. McHugh, and his wartime bravery, were forgotten.
In 2010, a member of the U.S. Medal of Honor Historical Society contacted the Vermilion County Clerk’s Office. They had discovered that McHugh was never issued a Medal of Honor marker. Machelle Long, who works in the clerk’s office, and Danville radio reporter Larry Weatherford eventually became co-chairs of a Medal of Honor Ceremony Committee that worked with the historical society for more than a year as it got the issuance of such a marker approved by the VA National Cemetery Administration.
On April 21, the Ceremony Committee – with the support of local Legion entities, among others – put together a day of celebration and remembrance for Seaman McHugh. A ceremony at Holy Family Church (the descendant of the First St. Patrick’s Church McHugh had attended) drew nearly 100 people to hear local and state politicians and others speak about the importance of never forgetting U.S. servicemembers, no matter how long ago they served. Interspersed in the ceremony were Bible readings, patriotic songs and hymns popular in the later 19th century.
After the ceremony, a procession of flag-bedecked vehicles, the Patriot Guard, Legion Riders, and five color guards – including one composed of Civil War re-enactors – made their way to Resurrection, where the Medal of Honor marker, a headstone and a historical marker were placed at McHugh’s grave during a formal dedication. Seven other Medal of Honor recipients from the area were also recognized. The day concluded with a reception at the Vermilion County War Museum, partly sponsored by the Legion.
American Legion Past National Commander Marty Conatser, an Illinois native, said that the members of the Ceremony Committee grew to feel “almost like they were family to McHugh now.” He was in Danville on April 21, and evoked “ageless bravery” in describing the events. “America never forgets,” he said.