ENSIGN JOHN DAVIS
Late of the USS Tulip and General Putnam, US Civil War (1861-1865)
Founder of the London Branch of American Civil War Veterans
John Davis was born in Hampshire in 1839. At age 9 he was working as a bird scarer in the local fields in winter. In later years, when his shipmates complained of the cold while rounding Cape Horn, he would laugh and say: “You try scaring crows and then you will know what cold means.” He had run away to sea but, a seafaring life was rough: “We earned our money like horses, and spent it like asses.”
In 1861, destitute, he shipped to New York and saw the opportunity for a regular wage in the US Navy. He enlisted in January, 1862 and served on a mortar boat in the Mississippi Squadron. In April 1862 he saw action at the capture of Forts St. Philip and Jackson outside New Orleans, describing the cannonade as “great volcanoes bursting” and like a “great judgement day”.
He served in the Vicksburg campaign and was later promoted to Master’s Mate and assigned to the gunboat Tulip on the Potomac Flotilla. When Tulip developed a defective boiler she was sent for repairs with orders to proceed on the port boiler only. Contrary to orders, the defective boiler was fired up. Davis was on deck when he heard the Chief Engineer shout “For God’s sake, raise the safety valve”. He grabbed a lifebuoy as the boilers exploded, destroying Tulip and killing 47 of the 57 crew.
The shock never left him and the hiss of steam always set him trembling. Commodore Foxall took an interest in him, commended him and sent him to Washington to see the Navy Secretary, Gideon Welles who gave him $200 and a promotion to Ensign. Since this was an officer’s rank, Davis had to take up US citizenship which he held to his dying day.
In 1867 he returned home and got employment as a lock gate-man in London’s docks. As before in his life, Davis had bouts of heavy drinking. In 1875 he was persuaded to go to a revivalist meeting held by the American evangelist Dwight Lyman Moody. It was a turning point and after a conversation with the local missionary of the London City Mission, Davis got a job with them.
The Mission assigned him to the Bermondsey slums, a true “den of iniquity” and a very dangerous place. When asked how he managed Davis replied: “Sir, I go to the people, and keep on going until they come to me.” His genuine love for the people, as Charles Booth called it, was proverbial. He was respected by all and was one of the best loved men in Bermondsey.
Davis retired in 1915 and died on 5th January, 1917 aged 76. He was buried in an unmarked grave in Nunhead cemetery but, a grave marker was obtained from the US Veterans Administration and dedicated on 23rd July, 2016. The occasion also saw the inauguration of Ensign John Davis Camp No. 10.
Davis received a Federal War Veteran’s pension. Here, he left another legacy. In his Mission work he came across other Civil War veterans who had fallen on hard times. Knowing that they too deserved pensions, the decision was made to bring them all together, both for comradeship and to help them claim a pension.
On 20th September, 1910 Davis founded the London Branch of American Civil War Veterans. Davis was the first secretary, the post of President being filled by Seth Herrick, formerly Major, Co. G., 2nd Maryland Eastern Shore Infantry. The first meeting was attended by 28 veterans and grew to around 150 members. They had their own badge, based on the official GAR medal. The last member died in September 1933.
Their activities were regularly reported in both the British and US press and their funerals were attended by an official from the American Embassy. They annually laid a wreath at Lincoln’s statue, Parliament Square, a tradition revived by Ensign John Davis Camp No. 10 in 2017.
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