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Historical Highlights

The Congressional Life Saving Medal

July 24, 1866
The Congressional Life Saving Medal Private Collection Without the efforts Captains George Stouffer, Robert Creighton, and Edwin Low, all the passengers on the steamship San Francisco would have perished.
On this date, the House passed Senate Joint Resolution 31 awarding rescuers of the steamship San Francisco the Congressional Life Saving Medal. On December 23 and 24, 1853, the San Francisco encountered a mammoth storm off the Atlantic seaboard that rendered her disabled and in jeopardy of sinking. The lives of more than 800 passengers—some 600 of whom were members of the U.S. Army and their families en route to California—were imperiled. Over the course of the next eight days, gale force winds buffeted numerous vessels trying to aid the San Francisco. Risking their own lives, the brave crews of the Three Bells of Glasgow, the Antarctic of New York, and the Kilby of Boston saved three-quarters of the passengers and crew; roughly 300 persons perished. Arriving on December 27th, Captain Edwin J. Low’s Kilby stayed alongside the San Francisco for nearly two days, rescuing many of the women and children aboard before the crippled ship drifted away overnight. Short on supplies and having sustained damage from the storm, the Kilby conducted a fruitless search and returned to port. Two days later, Captain Robert Creighton’s Three Bells reached the San Francisco. “Be of good cheer, we will stand by you,” Creighton assured those left aboard the San Francisco. The Three Bells stayed with the San Francisco until the arrival of Captain George C. Stouffer’s Antarctic on January 3rd, when the pair rescued the remaining passengers and crew. The heroic efforts of Captains Creighton, Stouffer, and Low became legendary. Representative Charles O’Neill of Pennsylvania compiled the report on behalf the House Commerce Committee. Referring to the medal and monetary award, O’Neill beseeched the House, “to do this eminent act of justice to the heroic captains, mates, and crews of these vessels.” President Andrew Johnson signed the legislation into law on July 26, 1866. While the Congressional Life Saving Medal apparently was modeled after European water rescue medals, little else is known about the history of this unusual award.

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