The Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest military honor, is awarded only to those who have demonstrated valor in the face of the enemy. An unsurpassed 24 British servicemen displayed such heroics at the relief of Lucknow, India, on Nov. 16, 1857, during that year’s massive sepoy uprising. Among the recipients was Able Seaman William Edward Hall, the first black person and third Canadian to receive a Victoria Cross. General Sir Colin Campbell, commander of British forces in India, called the action in which Hall participated “almost unexampled in war.”
Born in Horton Bluff, Nova Scotia, to former slaves on April 28, 1827, Hall first went to sea at age 17, serving in the merchant service and, briefly, the U.S. Navy before volunteering for the Royal Navy in 1852. As captain of a land-based gun crew he fought in the Crimean War, earning both Turkish and British decorations. After the war Hall was promoted to captain of the foretop of the 51-gun steam frigate HMS Shannon.
When the rebellion erupted across northern India in May 1857, the navy dispatched Shannon from Hong Kong to Calcutta. On its arrival the frigate commander, Captain Sir William Peel, assembled a force of some 450 Royal Marines and seamen to march to the besieged city of Lucknow, where 30,000 rebellious sepoys—native Indian soldiers trained by the British—had trapped some 700 native soldiers and 1,700 British men, women and children within the city’s British Residency.
Peel’s unit, known as the Naval Brigade, was armed with ten 8-inch guns, eight rocket tubes and two 24-pounder field-pieces. From Calcutta the brigade traveled on a barge towed by a river steamer nearly 500 miles up the Ganges River to Allahabad. There they joined with veterans from an earlier attempt to break the siege and, under Campbell’s command, moved cross-country. The brigade arrived outside Lucknow on November 12.
The key to lifting the siege was the Shah Najaf, a temple/ mausoleum turned rebel strong-point that one participant recalled was crowded with “great masses of the enemy, sepoys and matchlock-men.” On November 16 the men of the Naval Brigade hauled their guns to within 350 yards of its walls and opened fire. For three hours the guns banged away with little effect, so Peel ordered the two 24-pounders moved even closer. Still the walls held. At that point Shannon gunnery officer Lieutenant James Young called for a 12-man crew to roll one of the 24- pounders right up to the walls. Hall was among the volunteers for the virtual suicide mission.
The crew manhandled the field-piece to within 20 yards of the temple walls—so close they were below the angle of artillery fire from the walls. But each time they fired the 24-pounder, it rolled backward, forcing the men into the open under enemy fire to haul it forward again. “We ran our gun forward,” Hall later said, “until at last my gun’s crew was actually in danger of being hurt by splinters of brick and stone torn by the round shot from the walls.” Within minutes intense enemy fire had killed 10 of the crew and severely wounded Young. Hall was the last man standing.
Under withering fire Hall and the injured Young continued to load and fire their gun until they finally breached the wall, allowing British infantrymen to pour through the gap and take the temple. The British lifted the siege the next day. Rather than be pinned down in the Residency, as the first relief force had, Campbell quickly evacuated Lucknow.
Hall remained in the Royal Navy until 1876, when he retired with the rank of quartermaster. Returning to Nova Scotia to take up farming, he died there in 1904 at age 77 and was buried in an unmarked grave. In 1945 a local campaign succeeded in having his remains reburied with military honors in the Hantsport Baptist Church Cemetery in Nova Scotia. Today a stone monument bearing a memorial plaque and a bronze depiction of the Victoria Cross marks the spot.
Originally published in the March 2015 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.