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?
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.