During the Civil War, the Union Navy worked to capture various Confederate forts and cut off southern ports from precious trade routes that supplied them. Navy sailor Henry Shutes spent most of the war on the water and earned his Medal of Honor for his bravery during separate battles to do just that.
Other than Shutes being born in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1804, little has been published about him prior to his enlistment in the Navy. According to Mount Moriah Cemetery, where he’s buried, Shutes was an experienced mariner before the Civil War began. The earliest enlistment record found for him was from 1858, which said he had 22 years of prior experience. That meant Shutes would have joined the Navy around age 54.
Shutes initially served as a gunner’s mate on the USS Don before transferring to the USS Wissahickon. By April 1862, he’d become the captain of the forecastle on the ship, which was the upper forward deck where sailors slept. That rank was similar to a current-day petty officer.
Shutes was performing these duties during the Battle of Forts Jackson and St. Philip in late April 1862. The forts served as protection for New Orleans and sat on opposite sides of the Mississippi River about 75 miles south of the city. The Union started its bombardment on April 18.
By April 23, some Union ships had managed to break through a barrier on the river just south of the forts, allowing Union ships to move closer and engage enemy ships above the forts. The Wissahickon was one of them, and it had to dodge rafts that were set ablaze and other attempts to destroy them. During the campaign, Shutes’ Medal of Honor citation said, “his seamanlike qualities as gunner’s mate were outstanding,” and that Shutes performed his duties with skill and courage.
By April 24 and 25, the ships had made it past the forts and were headed toward New Orleans, which had been cleared of troops and lacked any defense against the Navy’s guns. Within days, the city was in Union possession. Days later, Forts Jackson and St. Philip surrendered.
Nearly a year later, on Feb. 27, 1863, Shutes again found himself in the midst of battle, this time on the Big Ogeechee River just south of Savannah, Georgia. The Wissahickon took part in an attack on Fort McAllister, where it helped to destroy a Confederate blockade runner called the Rattlesnake.
However, a shot from the fort’s guns penetrated the Wissahickon below the water line, entering the powder magazine where ammunition and explosives were stored. Shutes’ citation lauded him for his prompt action to save the ship. An 1890 Philadelphia Inquirer article said Shutes shut himself inside the magazine to drown the area with water to keep it from exploding, even though he knew he might die.
For his actions in both battles, he was awarded the Medal of Honor, a new decoration that had been created in 1861. At the time of the incidents, Shutes was about 58, making him the oldest Medal of Honor recipient of the Civil War.
It’s not clear when Shutes left the Navy, but according to Mount Moriah Cemetery in Philadelphia, a register of employees from the U.S. Naval Academy showed him to be employed there as a civilian watchman in 1865. At some point in the mid-1870’s, he moved to Philadelphia to the Naval Asylum, which was a home and hospital for retired seamen.
The Mount Moriah website said Shutes broke a leg in 1889 but “refused to keep his splint in place and grew increasingly belligerent about eating.” He died on Sept. 10, 1889, and was buried at Mount Moriah. The cemetery attributed his death to a “general failure of willpower.”