The Newcastle Sailor Who Ended Up An American War Hero

George H. Bell served in the Navy during the American Civil War and, injured in the line of duty, was awarded the United States of America’s highest military honour

The North East of England is not a place synonymous with the American Civil War. Over 3,500 miles from the main theatres of action, one of the area’s few contributions to that conflict came in October 1862, when then-Chancellor William Gladstone gave a contentious speech in Newcastle upon Tyne in which he supported British recognition of the seceded Confederate States of America:

“We may have our own opinions about slavery; we may be for or against the South; but there is no doubt that Jefferson Davis and other leaders of the South have made an army; they are making, it appears, a navy; and they have made, what is more than either, they have made a nation…”

Though his comments would have pleased Confederate president Jefferson Davis, they came too late to seriously affect the course of the war. Unbeknownst to Gladstone, as he rose to speak the Union forces had just won a decisive victory at the Battle of Antietam, and U.S. president Abraham Lincoln had seized that moment of optimism to issue his Emancipation Proclamation. Britain’s attitude towards the Confederates would be much more lukewarm from that point on, and hopes of recognition would finally be extinguished nine months later, following the Battle of Gettysburg.

As the war began, some in Britain were split on which horse to back across the Pond (slavery had been outlawed there for almost 30 years, but much of the country’s industry relied on Southern cotton), though many took a very definite position one way or the other. While Gladstone was firmly for the Confederates (though his motives were more complex than simply wishing to preserve the Southern way of life), an unassuming sailor from Newcastle was seemingly very much against them. His dedication to the cause led him not only to serve in the US Navy, but also to him being awarded the United States of America’s highest military honour.

George H. Bell wearing his Medal of Honour circa 1900 (source: Wikipedia)

George H. Bell, though born in Sunderland on the 12th of March 1839, moved with his family to Newcastle upon Tyne at some point in the early-to-mid 1840s. Around the age of 14, he became a sailor, and over the next few years sailed across the world, calling at ports as far apart as the Baltic Sea and the Indian Ocean.

In May of 1861, Bell was docked in New York. A month earlier the newly-formed Confederate States of America had seized Fort Sumter, off Charleston in South Carolina, and the conflict’s first major battle, near Manassas Junction in Virginia, was just weeks away. Bell decided to enlist in the United States Navy, which had just begun a blockade of all major Southern ports. While his motives for signing up remain unclear, it would come to be the most important decision of his young life.

In July of 1861, just as those first shots were ringing out in Virginia, he joined the crew of the U.S.S. Santee, which was docked in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Bell was initially employed as an able seaman, but due to his extensive sailing experience, he was quickly promoted to coxswain, in charge of the ship’s navigation and steering. The Santee had been assigned to assist in the blockade of the Gulf of Mexico, but on her voyage south, she would capture both the Confederate blockade runner C.P. Knapp, and the brig Delta, which was attempting to slip through the Union ships with a cargo of salt destined for Liverpool. Following these two successes en route, the Santee finally arrived in the Gulf around the end of October.

The U.S.S. Santee at the US Naval Academy, 1875 (source: Wikipedia)

At the same time, Commander William W. Hunter of the Confederate Navy chartered the Royal Yacht to patrol the waters off Galveston as a look out. Said to be the fastest schooner on the coast of Texas, she was at anchor in the Bolivar Channel, and was less than a month into her tour when she had her first encounter.

On the 7th November 1861, seamen from the Santee alongside a detachment of Marines attempted to capture the C.S.S. General Rusk. This ended in failure, when the boats ran aground trying to avoid detection. But success was just hours away, following expedition commander Lieutenant James Jouett’s decision to attack the Royal Yacht.

At around 2.30 am on the 8th, launches from the Santee surprised the Royal Yacht and “after a desperate encounter” which included hand-to-hand fighting, she was set on fire. In the skirmish, the Santee suffered one fatality and eight were wounded, including George H. Bell, while three of the Royal Yacht’s crew were injured.

Later that day, the C.S.S. Bayou City sent boats to investigate, and found the Royal Yacht ablaze. They extinguished the fire, but were too late to stop much of the crew being arrested by the Union ship, the arrestees including the Royal Yacht’s captain, Thomas Chubb.

Chubb, like Bell, had left home at a young age to join the navy, with some suggesting he was as young as six at the time. Chubb was born in Charlestown, Massachusetts, and once told British Army officer and foreign observer Arthur Fremantle that he was a “yankee by birth”. When the civil war broke out however, his sympathies lay firmly with the Rebels. Before the war he had been imprisoned in Boston, accused of hiring free blacks as crew in Boston, then sailing to Galveston, Texas, where he sold the unfortunate souls into slavery. Somehow, he escaped to the South and joined the Confederate Navy.

After the Royal Yacht was attacked, Chubb was taken to New York, and sentenced to be hanged as a pirate, but was exchanged after Confederate President Jefferson Davis threatened the same punishment to ten northern prisoners in retaliation.

The Santee meanwhile was refitted at the Boston Navy Yard, and served as a school ship for the Naval Academy, a task she performed until she sank at her moorings in 1912.

Two years after the Santee’s most famous engagement, on July 10th 1863, George H. Bell was given the Medal of Honour, awarded for personal acts of valour above and beyond the call of duty. His citation reads:

“The President of the United States of America, in the name of Congress, takes pleasure in presenting the Medal of Honor to Captain of the Afterguard George H. Bell, United States Navy, for extraordinary heroism in action, serving as Pilot of the U.S.S. Santee when that vessel was engaged in cutting out the rebel armed schooner Royal Yacht from Galveston Bay, Texas, 7 November 1861, and evinced more coolness, in passing the four forts and the rebel steamer General Rusk, than was ever before witnessed by his commanding officer. Although severely wounded in the encounter, he displayed extraordinary courage under the most painful and trying circumstances.”

After his service in the American Civil War, he returned to his native North East, and was married to Sarah Ann, with whom he had five children. In the early 1880s he relocated to Shropshire for a period, seemingly without his family, where he was employed as a shipwright, but he soon returned to Newcastle. Here he lived until his death in 1917, working as a bricklayer and a farmer, and living on Hunters Road in the Spital Tongues area of the city.

George H. Bell outlived his wife by 16 years, and is buried with her at Elswick Cemetery, in Newcastle upon Tyne’s west end.

George H. Bell’s grave un Elswick Cemetery, Newcastle upon Tyne (photo courtesy of Don Morfe, reproduced with permission)

Sources

Ancestry

Bachrach & Chase: Spar deck of the ”U.S.S. Santee”. [1862 ca.]

George B. Clark: Battle History of the United States Marine Corps, 1775–1945

Russ Dodge: George H. Bell

Arthur Fremantle: Three Months in the Southern States

Bud Hannings: Every Day of the Civil War: A Chronological Encyclopedia

Diana J. Kleiner: Chubb, Thomas B.

Peter J. Parish: Gladstone and America (in Peter John Jagger [ed]: Gladstone)

Arthur Wylie: The Confederate States Navy

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