Reference Entry

Sweeney, Robert Augustus

Glenn Allen Knoblock

in African American National Biography

Published in print January 2006 | ISBN: 9780195301731
Sweeney, Robert Augustus

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a sailor in the U.S. Navy and two-time Medal of Honor recipient, was a native of Montserrat, a French possession in the West Indies. When he immigrated to the United States is not known for certain, nor is anything known of his family background. While a number of accounts cite Sweeney as a native of Montreal, Canada, this is incorrect according to official military records.By 1873 Robert Sweeney was in the United States, and on 1 December of that year he enlisted in the U.S. Navy from New Jersey for a period of three years. He would subsequently reenlist for another term of service in 1876, and during these first two terms he served aboard the U.S.S. Vermont, U.S.S. Colorado, U.S. S. Pawnee, U.S.S. Dictator, U.S.S. Powhatan, U.S.S. Constellation, and the U.S.S. Franklin. Though nothing is known of Sweeney's activities prior to joining the navy, he likely had no seafaring experience, as after eight years of service he was rated an ordinary seaman. On 17 September 1881 Sweeney signed up for a third term of navy service and was assigned to the U.S.S. Kearsarge; just over a month later, on 26 October, he earned his first Medal of Honor when he saved a fellow crewman from drowning after he fell overboard while the ship was at Hampton Roads, Virginia. With a heavy tide running, Sweeney himself was nearly overcome several times before reaching the drowning sailor. Once he reached the man, Sweeney was able to keep the man afloat in rough seas for nearly a half an hour before the Kearsarge could reach the men and bring them aboard. Two years later, Sweeney was serving aboard the U.S.S. Yantic at the New York Navy Yard in 1883, when he again saved a fellow sailor from drowning. The Yantic was tied up beside the U.S.S. Jamestown with a gangplank between them when on 20 December a cabin boy named A. A. George from the Jamestown fell off the gangplank. Sweeney and Landsman J. W. Norris from the Jamestown both quickly dove into the water and saved the boy. While both men were subsequently awarded the Medal of Honor, for Robert Sweeney it was his second such award.Robert Sweeney is a significant figure in both naval and African American history. Not only is he the only African American to win the Medal of Honor twice, he is also one of just thirteen men from all branches of the military to have been awarded the medal for two different feats of valor. Sadly, the deeds of Sweeney, and men such as Alphonse Girandy and John Johnson have been largely forgotten due to the fact that they occurred in peacetime; the Medal of Honor was awarded for feats of valor in noncombat situations until the advent of World War I, when the criteria for its award were changed.Following the award of his second Medal of Honor, Robert Sweeney served in the navy for most of the remainder of his life. Interestingly, Sweeney enlisted in the army at New York on 9 December 1885 during an intermediate period between terms of naval service. What prompted his change in service branches is unknown, but he had a quick change of heart, as he deserted from the army just two days after enlisting. Shortly thereafter he joined the navy for his fourth and final term of service. Robert Augustus Sweeney ended his naval career on 18 June 1890 and, possibly worn out by his years of service, died at Bellevue Hospital in New York City just six months later on 19 December 1890. He was subsequently buried in Cavalry Cemetery, Woodside, New York, in an unmarked grave.

Reference Entry.  635 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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