I entered the sacred grounds of Altoona’s Calvary Cemetery to seek one of the region’s most notable figures. I drove past local leaders and sports figures who I would visit later so I could pay my respects to a man who was honored for his bravery.
I made my way through the peaceful setting, making my way towards the rear of the cemetery. Turning down one of the roadways, I could see the American flag, flapping in the breeze, that marked the grave I was looking for. Located next to the roadway, I stepped out of the vehicle and stood at the grave of John S. Hickman, a Civil War veteran and Medal of Honor recipient.
John Pierce Hickman was born in Blair County on March 2, 1837, there is little known of his early years, but he was serving in the US Navy during the US Civil War. During his time in the Navy, he rose to the rank of Second Class Fireman aboard the USS Richmond, a 2,604 ton wooden steam sloop.
In 1863, the USS Richmond was part of a squadron which was sent to the Gulf of Mexico to strengthen the blockade of Confederate ports. On March 14, 1863, the squadron had steamed up the Mississippi River and were passing Port Hudson, located about fifteen miles up river from Baton Rouge, when tragedy struck. The USS Richmond, which was the second ship in the column of Union ships, was bombarded by the Confederate entrenchments at Port Hudson. A shot shattered both the starboard and port safety-valves, forcing the USS Richmond to withdraw from the attack.
Due to the damage, the steam room was on fire and filling with hot steam — the ship was in danger of exploding. Fireman Joseph Vantine, Second Class Fireman John Hickman, First Class Fireman Mathew McClelland, and Fireman First Class John Rush moved quickly to save the ship.
Covering their faces with wet cloth, the four men entered the room filled with hot steam to remove any burning objects. When one man was overcome by the heat, another would take his place and continue to work on saving the ship.
Due to their actions, the USS Richmond was saved and all four men would be awarded the Medal of Honor on July 10, 1863. The citation for Hickman’s Medal of Honor reads: “Served on board the U.S.S. Richmond in the attack on Port Hudson, 14 March 1863. Damaged by a 6-inch solid rifle shot which shattered the starboard safety-valve chamber and also damaged the port safety valve, the fireroom of the U.S.S. Richmond immediately became filled with steam to place it in an extremely critical condition. Acting courageously in this crisis, Hickman persisted in penetrating the steam-filled room in order to haul the hot fires of the furnaces and continued this action until the gravity of the situation had been lessened.”
At the end of the US Civil War, Hickman returned to Altoona, where he worked as a freight conductor for the Pennsylvania Railroad. Hickman died December 24, 1904 and was buried in Calvary Cemetery.
I finished paying my respects to the Civil War veteran, before I left Hickman to slumber beneath the simple stone that remembered his bravery.