Life of American Civil War veteran celebrated at Plaistow grave
PUBLISHED: 14:00 11 September 2015
A British sailor who was one of the first people to awarded a America’s highest military honour for a non-combative act was celebrated at a special service in Plaistow yesterday.
Historians, family members and American Civil War enthusiasts gathered at East London Cemetery, in Grange Road for a rededication service for the gravestone of Maurice Wagg.
Born in Christchurch, Hampshire, on July 23 1840, he received the Medal of Honour on New Year’s Eve 1865, after his ship The Rhode Island, of which he was the coxswain, remained in a dangerous position through a heavy storm all night, searching for survivors of a small missing boat.
After the four-year conflict he returned to Britain and died from senile decay and bronchitis at his home in Galbraith Street, Poplar, on June 22, 1926, and was buried at the cemetery in an unmarked pauper’s grave, 14951, square 37.
His tale might never have been told if it wasn’t for historian Michael Hammerson, a retired chartered surveyor and town planning consultant from Highgate, who came across Maurice as part of a study into the 1,300 British veterans of the American conflict.
“It’s been a very exciting process, especially when I’m able to involve families who knew very little about their family history,” he said.
“If it can create more interest about a pivotal period of world history it will have been very worthwhile.”
Geologist Matt Garrick, 31, from Southend has traced his family tree back as 467 through genealogy sites, but it was only when contacted by Mr Hammerson that he became aware of his great, great, great Uncle Maurice’s achievements.
“I work in America quite a lot and don’t have a lot to do in the evenings, so I’ve been researching my family’s history on and off for about nine years,” he said.
“I found it rally strange that an Englishman would go to America, fight in the war, and then come back.
“It was fascinating to find out and we’re really proud, especially as he received the Medal for a non-combative act.”
As part of the ceremony, Mr Garrick was inducted into the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War (SUVCW) group.
Group member Doug Fidler, 65, flew in from Knoxville, Tennessee for the service and admitted it was a proud occasion for people on both sides of the Atlantic.
“We don’t leave people behind and we don’t forget soldiers and their families,” he said.
“This is especially important for us coming over here and doing this for a Medal of Honor recipient who was buried in a pauper’s grave.”
Despite his heroics during the war, it later transpired that the English all-American hero had a deep, dark secret.
When his blind widow, Harriet Jane attempted to collect her widow’s pension at the age of 83, she was refused, instead finding out her late husband had been a bigamist.
That Wagg had married a Mary Ann Murphy – 10 years his senior – in Richmond, Maine, on January 20, 1855, but left her just weeks later without divorce, before tying the knot with Harriet in 1880 and enjoying 46 years together.
Poor Harriet was not entitled to a cent from Uncle Sam.
If you value what this story gives you, please consider supporting the Newham Recorder. Click the link in the orange box above for details.