Joseph Noil is not exactly a house hold name and even those that know him best will admit that he is shrouded in mystery. Best guesses surround not only his name, but also his home town, his period of service and the exact cause of his death. About the only things that are certain about Joseph Benjamin Noil, is that he served in the U.S. Navy, he was an African American and he was an American hero.
Noil’s story starts in 1839, or maybe as late 1841 – no one really knows for sure – but experts believe he was born in Liverpool, Nova Scotia, Canada, as that information was pieced together by historians from naval records.
Noil enlisted in New York on Oct. 7, 1864. He was described simply as “Negro” and “5 feet 6 inches tall.” His birthplace was noted as Nova Scotia and he bore at least one tattoo. His age was recorded as 25; his previous occupation was listed as a carpenter, but this could be a clerical error as historians also found his name misspelled in other documents as “Loil” instead of Noil.
Gayle Alvarez and Bart Armstrong of Medal of Honor Historical Society provide a concise look at his service— removing a portion of the mystery surrounding Noil:
He served with the North Atlantic Squadron and then on Jan. 27, 1865, transferred to the Nyack. In March 1866, he transferred to the Dacotah and served until March 18, 1867 when he was discharged. Noil re-enlisted on Dec. 18, 1871, again in New York. This time his age was recorded as 30.
Then dawned Dec. 26, 1872. The Powhattan’s ship log noted that the weather was overcast and rainy with a moderate gale of wind from the northwest. It also contains this very brief excerpt: “At 11 Jack Walton, boatswain, fell overboard but was saved in an exhausted condition.”
Unfortunately, there was no mention of Walton’s rescuer in the ships log. But the next day Captain Peirce Crosby, commander of the Powhattan, identified Walton’s hero in a memo that would be published in a Jan. 11, 1873, Army and Navy Journal. The entry reads:
“Sir: I have the honor to bring to the notice of the Department the gallant conduct of Joseph B. Noil, seaman, (negro,) one of the crew of this vessel. The circumstances are as follows: On yesterday morning the boatswain, I .C.[sic] Walton, fell overboard from the forecastle, and was saved from drowning by Joseph B. Noil, seaman, who was below on the berth deck at the time of the accident, and hearing the cry ‘man overboard,’ ran on deck, took the end of a rope, went overboard, under the bow, and caught Mr. Walton, who was then in the water, and held him until he was hauled into the boat sent to his rescue. The weather was bitter cold, and had been sleeting, and it was blowing a gale from the northwest at the time. Mr. Walton, when brought on board, was almost insensible, and would have perished but for the noble conduct of Noil, as he was sinking at the time he was rescued.”
No award order was noted for Noil saving his fellow sailor’s life, however, the Navy’s Medal of Honor log book notes that he was in fact awarded the Medal of Honor. Records indicate the medal was sent to him on Jan. 27, 1873, and he acknowledged receiving it on March 4, 1873. Historians presume that the Medal was presented to him aboard the Powhattan.
If it were not for that entry, Noil’s service may have been lost to the ages, but once again, his life and service fades in and out of the unknown. He was discharged on Dec. 17, 1874, but re-enlisted a few days later on Dec. 29 in New York, but this time his full name is listed as Joseph Benjamin Noil. Documents reflect that he was again discharged in 1877 but reenlisted in February 1878. Records of the Bureau of Naval Personnel include “Conduct Book” entries for the USS Powhatan from 1874 to 1884. The book notes Noil’s service and includes the comment “Always 1st class and on time.”
Sometime in May 1881, Noil left the USS Wyoming, a 198-foot sloop. Records indicate that he was admitted to the Naval hospital in Norfolk, Virginia with his rank listed as Captain of the Hold. As with most things surrounding Noil, his illness remains a mystery – the diagnosis is listed as “Paralysis; his mind and body were failing him.” He was transferred to the Government Hospital for the Insane in Washington, D.C., on June 3, 1881.
Records and letters indicate that Noil was married and had two small children. His wife, Sarah wrote several heart-wrenching letters to the hospital. In the first, she expressed concern about her husband and described trying to figure out how she could afford to travel to see him. In the final letter, she thanks the hospital for caring for him to his death on March 21, 1882.
The Government Hospital for the Insane is known today as Saint Elizabeth’s and still operates in the nation’s capital. Records indicate that a tombstone was ordered and that he was buried on hospital grounds. However, a typo on his death certificate led to the mistake being repeated on his headstone. Instead of his grave being marked as Joseph Benjamin Noil, it was instead marked Joseph Benjamin Noel with no indication that the remains buried beneath the ground were those of a Medal of Honor recipient.
For nearly 130 years, Joseph Benjamin Noil was missing and nearly forgotten. If it wasn’t for the efforts of members of the Medal of Honor Historical Society of the United States working with members of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, his mismarked grave may have never been found in 2011.
A ceremony will be held Friday, April 29, at 11a.m. honoring Noil with a Medal of Honor headstone befitting of his service and bearing the correct spelling of his name. The ceremony will take place at the Saint Elizabeth’s Hospital Cemetery (East Campus) for those wishing to attend the event.
For more information about burial and memorial benefits available to Veterans, including those Veterans buried in private cemeteries such as Saint Elizabeths, visit the National Cemetery Administration.
To attend the event, please contact Maureen Jais-Mick via email at Maureen.firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone by calling 202-299-5220.
Editor’s note: This blog posting relied heavily on a joint report by filed by Gayle Alvarez and Bart Armstrong of the Medal of Honor Historical Society. VAntage Point applauds their individual efforts as well as those of the Society in preserving the history of those who have been awarded our nation’s highest honor.