The Most Incredible Article About the Civil War You’ll Ever Read

by Sheldon

The blazing hulk of the USS Tulip burnt ferociously as 29 year old John Davis gasped for breath; his head erupting from the surface of the dark waters of the Potomac. Embers rained down from the sky – shouting aloud, in part to let people know he was alive but also to see if any of his crew mates had survived; the explosion on the boat had killed 47 men instantly.

The ship had been bought as a gunship/tugboat for the Union side of the Civil War in the 1860’s. Having developed a fault in its right hand boiler, it made its way to St Inigoes in Maryland for essential repairs. Against all advice,  the engineers began to pump steam into the faulty boiler as they departed– and the resulting explosion cast John Davis and seven other people head first into the river. It posited two questions; one which take him nearly ten years to find an answer for.

Why me? Why did I survive?

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Nunhead

© Christina Owen, 2016

Fast forward to an overgrown corner of Nunhead Cemetery, on the 23rd July. Around plot 32640, the Labour Councillor for East Dulwich, Captain Rudesill of the US Navy and Davis’ descendant Peter Collins stand, with others, around the freshly installed grave marker. Finally, after 99 years, one of the people buried in this deep 30ft grave is being remembered. Beneath the soil, a US Flag covers his coffin and the life of a remarkable British Civil War war hero and missionary is once again remembered.

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John Davis was born in the village of Meonstoke. The son of a Mole-catcher, at age 9, he was employed as a human scarecrow. Aged 14, he simply runs away to sea. By his mid-twenties, his life consisted of drinking, gambling and womanising. Penniless and with little option, he signs up for the Unionist side of the American Civil War.

Once ashore and recovered from his injuries received from the Tulip, This Daredevil Jack returned home a naturalised citizen – a hero even, for it is said he helped search for Wilkes Booth after he assassinated Abraham Lincoln.

By 1877, his drifting had brought him to the Australian gold rush and then to the East End as a dock worker where he happened upon the preaching of American gospel singer and Composer Ira David Sankey and evangelist Dwight L Moody, whose stirring music and words had him come to a profound realisation; he survived that terrible explosion because he was meant to help people.  He gave up drinking that very night and two years later joined the London City Mission to help the Godless souls of Bermondsey.

‘I have been pelted with garbage and rotten fish. I have been dragged through the district by my hair’

Davis on preaching in Bermondsey

Realising that he was one of a dwindling band of Civil War soldiers in the capital, Davis founded  The London Branch of American Civil War Veterans in the London Mission in Gedling Street, Bermondsey (now the site of the Arnold Estate) in 1910 to ‘look after one another in the few years that remain’. There was a more practical reason to its foundation too; the veterans, who were found around the docks and in Workhouses, could band together and receive help in claiming their pension from the US Government.

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The Veterans marching through London, 1917. This must have been particularly poignant as John died 4 months before this parade. © Getty Images. 

By September 1913 the Veterans were dining in Frascati’s, one of London’s lost restaurants – frequented by the likes of Linley Sambourne – to remember the Battle of Gettysburg. The veterans, originally 180 in number, continued to meet for various events but although they had survived war there was one enemy they couldn’t survive – time itself. One by one their numbers decreased and eventually it was John’s time, passing away in January 1917, ending 33 years service to the people of Southwark.

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“There were fifteen at the funeral, six at the cemetery. It was an impressive sight when the old men came up with their Flag and waved it over his grave and said: ‘Here’s the old Flag you fought under, John; God bless you, we will miss your dear face, but we know we will meet you in heaven.'”  –

Charles Davis on his father’s funeral

With little pomp and circumstance, the story of one of the most interesting characters came to an end. Forgotten, too, in a common grave in a far flung part of Nunhead Cemetery. 

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It’s taken nearly a century and thanks to the efforts of his great-grandson, that Davis, the drinker, gambler and womaniser, latterly a man of honesty, virtue and kindness, is remembered once more.

But let us not forget the other 12 people he shares that grave with too; opened on the 11th January and closed on the 27th January 1917– James Hart, Edith Alice Watkins, Eliza Charlotte Scott, Ernest Henry Smith, Cosina Richard James, Mary Jackson, Eliza Belron, William Freeman, Ruth Kerish, Jane Crocker, John Painter and Samuel Self, whose lives haven’t, just yet, been rediscovered to warrant a memorial.

My thanks to Paul Vesty, The British Newspaper Archive and Deceased Online in the assistance given to research this post.

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About SheldonKGoodman

I'm Sheldon, a City of Westminster guide who has a love of all things Cemetery! Co-founding the Cemetery Club in May 2014, it's my ambition to challenge the perception of Cemeteries are mournful places but to champion them as museums of people and libraries of the dead. I also co-lead the official Pride in London tour and do guided walks for Open Garden Square Weekend.
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4 Responses to The Most Incredible Article About the Civil War You’ll Ever Read

  1. We are very proud of our new camp, the Ensign John Davis Camp No. 10 of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War in London. This camp was “born” from our own camp in the USA, the Major William A. McTeer Camp No. 39 of Maryville, TN. One of our members, Dr. Doug Fidler has worked with our UK members and the family of Ensign Davis to secure the marker that was dedicated by ceremony on 23 July 2016 by members of Ensign Davis’ family, members of the new camp and Dr. Fidler and the Commander-in-Chief of the SUVCW, Gene Mortorff.

  2. Peter Collins. Commander Ensign John Davis Camp # 10 SUVCW says:

    Thank you for your article about my Great Grandfather, John Davis. I would like to add my thanks especially to Jeff Hart from the Friends of Nunhead Cemetery and also to Candy Edwards from the London Borough of Southwark Cemetery Dept. as this memorial would not have been possible without their assistance. The memorial stone was kindly supplied, engraved and shipped over without cost by the U.S. Veterans Association. It is a fitting tribute to a man who surely deserved a marker for all the good work he carried out in Bermondsey for The London City Mission and his setting up of The London Branch of American Civil War Veterans. There is a copy of his biography ‘A Marvel of Mercy The life story of John Davis American Naval Officer & London City Missionary’ in Southwark Library written by Rev .H. Codling.

  3. Douglas K. Fidler, PhD says:

    On behalf of the Brothers of Ensign John Davis Camp 10, London, and Major William A. McTeer Camp 39, Maryville, Tenn., thank you for your well-written and perceptive story about this great Anglo-American hero, John Davis. While gone for nearly a century, his life can still inspire ordinary people to do extraordinary things. I pray your article may encourage many of us today, especially our youth, to look for ways to make such a great difference in our own generation.

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