Suppose you had done an act of great bravery but nobody believed you. This is what happened to Derry’s Dan George (1840-1916) when he tried to explain to his neighbors how he had earned the Medal of Honor.
Daniel Griffin George had been born in Plaistow and when he was only 17 he went to sea for four years of adventure in a whaling ship; then came the Civil War and he enlisted in the cavalry. At enlistment, he stood 5 feet, 8 3/4 inches with hazel eyes, a ruddy complexion and dark hair. Proving his mettle in 40 battles, he was promoted to sergeant. In the four-hour battle of Aldie, Va., his outfit was decimated. George was captured and forced to march 50 miles in his bare feet after his boots were stolen. He was held in a series of prisons including the infamous Libby Prison until he finally escaped and rejoined his outfit.
Soon afterwards, Dan decided he had enough of Army life and joined the Navy. Soon he became friends with another sailor named Ed Houghton. Ed was selected to serve on the USS Chicopee but Dan wasn’t. Rather then be separated, Dan became William Smith, a sailor who was selected but didn’t want to go. For the rest of the war Dan George was officially Bill Smith.
In the summer of 1864, the steam-powered ram CSS Albemarle was dominating the Virginia coast, sinking Union ships left and right — or is that port and starboard? Washington was desperate. Shells just bounced off the ram’s sides which were covered with 5-inch-thick iron plate above the waterline. We wanted to corner the ram while she was in harbor but its port-of-call was too shallow for Union gunships to get near the monster boat. The ram was further protected by a boom of logs that floated like a necklace around her.
The Navy’s plan was to sneak close to the Albemarle with a 30-foot, steam-powered launch. With a torpedo on end of a 15-foot-long pole, they hoped to sink the ram. Ed and Dan volunteered for the suicide mission. As they boarded the launch the commander’s parting words were, “Well boys, get into your coffin.”
By early morning on Oct. 27, the launch got close to the Albemarle but was soon sported by the ship’s crew who rained bullets down on the Union sailors. The launch immediately backed away and the Confederates thought they were retreating. Quickly however the launch turned around and went full throttle at the Albemarle. Because the logs in the protecting booms had been in the water for a long time, they were slimy and the launch just slid over them. Immediately, Ed and Dan stood up and extended the pole in front of the launch. At just the right moment, Dan pulled the lanyard to set the torpedo sailing across the water. The torpedo hit just below the ram’s waterline, blowing a 5-foot-wide hole in the wooden hull sinking the Albemarle.
The men in the launch then jumped ship and swam for shore. Dan was captured and spent the rest of the war in a Confederate prison. While there, President Lincoln made sure the launch’s crew received the Medal of Honor. Unfortunately, Dan’s medal was awarded in the name of his nom de guerre, William Smith. Later, in 1865, Dan and Ed got into a brawl with some ex-Confederates. Ed was killed and their medals were stolen.
In 1877, Dan and his wife, Mary, moved to a farm on Ballard Road in Derry and shared with his neighbors his life story. In the spring of 1883, he reluctantly agreed to address a gathering in Derry Village. Soon he was giving his story in Manchester, Springfield, Mass., and Boston. Then the problems began. People began to doubt that he was who he said he was. The hero of the Albemarle was after all William Smith, not Daniel George.
One letter in a Boston newspaper called Dan a “nincompoop and fraud.” The Springfield Republican said to ignore him because “he’s not the hero he says he is.” The Manchester Union referred to him as a “pretender.” Across New England he was called a humbug, a fraud.
Later in 1883, Dan heard that Lt. Cmdr. Antoine McNair, his old commander from the USS Chicopee, was in Boston. Dan told the press he would visit him to clear everything up. When a reporter interviewed McNair, he said he had never heard of Dan George. Most doubted that George would dare to visit McNair and be exposed as a phony.
To the surprise of everyone, Dan did visit McNair. When the commander opened the door he immediately grabbed Dan by the hand and with great emotion said, “How do you do, Smith. I haven’t seen you since 1866.” He told the reporters that he was the officer who had pinned the Medal of Honor on Ensign Smith. Later, McNair wrote Dan a letter attesting to his bravery. For the rest of his life, he was never again questioned about his war record.
Dan, his wife and 10 children, moved from Derry in 1887 and he died in Merrimac, Mass., in 1916.
There is still however some confusion about Dan’s military service. Check it out online. Some sites get it right but others have William Smith earning the Medal of Honor. Some sites honor Dan George but say his real name was William Smith. I think I even remember seeing one bronze plaque which honors both William Smith and Daniel George for earning the medal for the battle on Oct. 27, 1864.
Rick Holmes is the official town historian of Derry. His office hours at the Municipal Center are Mondays from 8 a.m. to noon and Wednesdays from 4 to 7 p.m. Several of his books on local history are available at Mack’s Apples and Derry’s libraries.