ECW’s friend Darren Rawlings of the American Civil War and U.K. History podcast brings us the following account of a headstone dedication held this fall in London, England, for a British veteran of the American Civil War.
On October 16, 2023, at Hendon Cemetery, north London, the Monuments for U.K. Veterans of the American Civil War Association and many others came together to dedicate a headstone for John S. Taplin.
Taplin’s Civil War story started when he enlisted for the three-year term in the U.S. Navy in Brooklyn, New York, on November 15, 1861, as an ordinary seaman. He was only 15 years old but lied about his age, saying his was 22 and that he’d been born in Sydney, Australia. He’d actually been born in Hammersmith, west London.
Taplin also stated that he had no naval experience, but in fact, be he had joined the merchant navy at the young of 13. His mother had died in 1849, and his father spent time in debtor’s prison, so that fractured home life had inspired him to join the merchant navy on July 7, 1859, sailing on a vessel called the Union. When the ship’s travels took him to North America, his jumped ship.
Taplin served on the USS Morning Light, charged with blockade duty along the Texas coast. The crew was on patrol near Sabine pass on January 21, 1863, when they were set upon by two Confederate steamers, Josiah Bell and Uncle Ben. When the attack began, Captain John Dillingham gave orders for the Morning Light’s crew to load their small arms and distribute pikes.
Taplin noticed some of his crewmates had climbed their vessel’s rigging and, from the tops of the masts, used the advantage of height to fire upon the Confederate officers and gunners. However, they soon became targets of the rebel sharpshooters.
Taplin, in the thick of the action, watched in horror as a comrade, Ordinary Seaman Patrick Ferlin, was killed by an explosion. Ferlin was within an arm’s reach of Taplin’s left side, and the spray of lethal shell splinters that Killed Ferlin struck him, Taplin, too. Taplin survived with cuts on his left arm and side, which would become lifelong scars.
Eventually, overwhelming numbers of Confederates boarded the Morning Light. With no other choice, Dillingham began to wave his hat and called out several times, “I surrender!”
Confederates took the captured crew of the Morning Light, Taplin included, were put into coal cars and sent by train to Houston, Texas. Taplin remained in Houston for about four months and then moved, first, to the infamous Camp Groce, then later, Camp Ford. During nearly two years as a captive, Taplin witnessed the deaths of many of his comrades from the effects of poor treatment, diet, diarrhea, and fever.
Taplin tried to escape three times. Eventually, a fourth escape attempt from Camp Ford proved successful. He disguised himself as a Confederate officer and made his way across miles of inhospitable enemy country. Eventually, he arrived in Union lines at New Orleans.
Taplin transferred to the steamer USS Fort Morgan. On November 12, 1864, he made his way to New York and was placed on the receiving ship North Carolina. Two weeks later, on December 14, 1864, he was honourably discharged.
Discharge gave John the opportunity to make a new life in the United States. He would live in Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Vancouver, Canada. In 1879, Taplin enlisted as a private in the Illinois National Guard in Chicago where he rose to the rank of first lieutenant.
Taplin eventually relocated back to England, and by 1917, he had settled permanently in the city of his birth. There, he joined the London branch of U.S. Civil War Veterans
Taplin died on May 13, 1921, and was buried in Hendon Cemetery, North London. Unfortunately, he was then forgotten about until Gina D’Enham, co-founder of the Monuments for UK Veterans of the American Civil War Association, discovered him buried without a headstone.
On October 16, 2023, the Association dedicated a new headstone for Taplin. The dedication was attended by members of the re-enactment societies the Southern Skirmish Association and American Civil Society, as well as the mayor of Barnet, Councillor Nagus Narenthira, and Lt. Cmdr. R. Tracy Collins of the United States Navy. A small crowd of visitors also attended the ceremony to pay their respects.
If you would like to keep up to date with all the activities of the Monuments for UK Veterans of the American Civil War Association, you can find them at linktr.ee/TheMonumentalProject.