The Medal of Honor symbolizes the ideals of patriotism, courage, sacrifice, and integrity and is the highest award presented for military valor in action. Those recipients have shown bravery in combat, going above and beyond the call of duty, risking – and often sacrificing – their lives for the welfare of others.
First introduced for the Department of the Navy in 1861, the Medal of Honor would be created for the Department of the Army’s Medal of Honor in 1862. The Department of the Air Force, which originally used the same Medal as the Department of the Army, introduced their own Medal of Honor in 1965. Since its inception during the U.S. Civil War, more than 3500 recipients have been honored with the Medal of Honor.
This is the story of a Medal of Honor recipient.
Many years ago, a friend and I were passing through Harrisburg and due to construction decided to get off at the Thirteenth Street exit and take Cameron Street northward. In the days before GPS units sending me on scenic detours, a miscommunication had me continuing on Thirteenth Street rather than turning onto Paxton Street. Almost immediately past the intersection, I noticed a cemetery on my right and at the top of the hill, I turned onto Hill Street and paused.
The road, which appeared to be a small parking area rather than a street, entered the small cemetery from Thirteenth Street and made its way among the monuments of the sacred grounds. The two of us took in the cemetery from our vantage point and seeing the grass had obviously not been mowed in a while, decided to continue on our way home rather than spend time exploring the sacred grounds.
While I had thought about the cemetery over the years, I did not have a reason to go back. Recently I found myself in Harrisburg and I was returning to the Mount Calvary Catholic Cemetery after a fifteen-year absence. I hoped the cemetery was in better condition than I remembered and thankfully it was as the smell of recently mowed grass lingered in the air.
I entered the cemetery grounds and turned right, knowing the memorial was just a short distance along this roadway. I had driven just a short distance when my father announced he could see the memorial standing roughly fifty yards off of the roadway on my left.
Getting out of the vehicle, I carefully made my way to the stone marked with the name “Madden” and beneath the family name were the names Michael and Anna. As I approached the memorial, I could see a small reflective circle on it – it proved to be a sticker marking the gravesite as being the resting place of a Medal of Honor recipient. The stone had been repaired – pictures from the early 2010s show it had been knocked over. In front of the stone is a U. S. military plaque, which remembers the recipient of the Medal of Honor.
Michael J. Madden was born September 28, 1841 in County Limerick, Ireland and at the age of fourteen, he arrived in the United States. In June 1861, he enlisted as a Private in Company K of the 42nd New York Infantry, Company K and was mustered into service on June 28. Note: There is a slight difference in records about where Madden was living once he arrived in the United States. His death announcement in Harrisburg newspapers state that he had settled in Harrisburg upon arriving in the United States. However, this conflicts with military records which place Madden as living in Long Island, New York when he entered military service. In addition, the town his Medal of Honor is accredited to is New York, New York, rather than Harrisburg, which implies Madden was living in New York at the time of his enlistment.
On September 3, 1861, Madden was one of three men to cross the Potomac River into Virginia to scout for any Confederate movement. The trio found what they were looking for and fled toward the safety of the northern bank of the Potomac River to escape the Confederate forces. In the process of fleeing toward safety, one of the men was wounded and another captured. Madden helped his wounded comrade to the river and swam with him to the Union line on Mason’s Island while under fire from Confederates. The two men made it to safety and the incident was mostly forgotten at the moment.
The regiment would see action at Ball’s Bluff, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, The Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, and Cold Harbor, to name just a few of the conflicts they took part in. Madden was wounded three times during his service with the 42nd New York Infantry: once in the head, once in the leg, and during the Battle at Gettysburg he had a finger shot off. Madden, with the rest of his regiment, was mustered out of service on July 13, 1864. Madden settled in Harrisburg and on March 15, 1865, he reenlisted as a member of the 3rd Regiment of Engineers.
After the war, Madden returned to life in Harrisburg and found employment with the Pennsylvania Railroad. While working for them, Madden helped develop a car brake which would be used in all the Pennsylvania Railroad cars.
It would not be until 1898 that Private Michael Madden would be recognized for his bravery and presented the Medal of Honor. The citation for his medal reads: “The President of the United States of America, in the name of Congress, takes pleasure in presenting the Medal of Honor to Private Michael Madden, United States Army, for extraordinary heroism on 3 September 1861, while serving with Company K, 42d New York Infantry, in action at Mason’s Island, Maryland. Private Madden assisted a wounded comrade to the riverbank and, under heavy fire of the enemy, swam with him across a branch of the Potomac to the Union lines.”
Michael Madden passed on August 7, 1920, leaving behind a widow and seven children. He was placed to rest in Mount Calvary Cemetery.
As I stood at the grave of Private Michael Madden, the noise of the city seemed to vanish. I finished remembering his service and bravery before leaving him to rest within the sacred grounds of Harrisburg’s Mount Calvary Cemetery.