William Joseph Franks (1830–1880)
William Joseph Franks was a U.S. Navy seaman who received a Medal of Honor for his actions while serving as an artilleryman in a Civil War battle at Yazoo City, Mississippi, in 1864. He is buried in Maple Hill (Independence County).
Little is known about William Joseph Franks’s early life, except that he was born in 1830 in Pittsboro, Chatham County, North Carolina. The 1850 federal census appears to include a reference to him as living in Chatham County’s Lower Regiment with a fifty-year-old woman named Rebuah Frankes and a seven-year-old girl named Emilin Frankes, though it lists William as a fifteen-year-old laborer rather than a twenty-year-old. Regardless, he was in DeValls Bluff (Prairie County) in 1863 and enlisted in the U.S. Navy there on September 16, 1863. By early 1864, he was serving as a seaman aboard the USS Marmora.
On March 5, 1864, the Marmora was one of several Union gunboats in the Yazoo River by Yazoo City when 1,300 Texas Confederates under Brigadier General Sul Ross and Tennesseans led by Brigadier General R. V. Richardson attacked the Federal garrison occupying the city. The garrison, commanded by Colonel James H. Coates, consisted of troops in the Eleventh Illinois Infantry Regiment, the Eighth Louisiana Infantry of African Descent, and the First Mississippi Cavalry of African Descent.
Skirmishing began at 7:30 a.m., and steady Confederate pressure forced the Union troops to fall back through town toward fortifications near the riverbank. Coates requested aid from the naval forces, which led to a strike force of three sailors—William Joseph Franks and James Stoddard from the Marmora and Bartlett Laffey from the USS Petrel—commanded by an ensign, going ashore with a naval cannon on a field carriage to assist the beleaguered Federals. All three sailors would receive a Medal of Honor for their actions that day.
His Medal of Honor citation states: “Embarking from the Marmora with a 12-pound howitzer mounted on a field carriage, Franks landed with the gun and crew in the midst of a heated battle and, bravely standing by his gun despite enemy fire which cut the gun carriage and rammer, contributed to the turning of the enemy during the fierce engagement.”
“The crew at one time was driven from the gun, they not having sufficient support to hold it, but the soldiers, seeing the crew driven, rallied, charged on the rebels, and retook it, losing three men,” Petrel commander Thomas McElroy reported to Rear Admiral David D. Porter. “I am proud to say that the Navy was well represented by 3 sailors, who nobly stood by their guns throughout the whole action, fighting hand to hand to save the gun and the reputation of the Navy.”
The Confederates broke off the combat at about 3:00 p.m. and rode away from Yazoo City. Union casualties in the action consisted of thirty-one dead, 121 wounded, and thirty-one missing, while Confederate losses were six dead and fifty-one wounded.
McElroy recommended Franks, Stoddard, and Laffey for recognition, and on April 16, 1864, each was awarded a Medal of Honor through General Order 32. Franks was promoted from seaman to acting master’s mate, a rank he held when he was honorably discharged from the Navy on August 27, 1865.
After the war, Franks became a farmer at Maple Spring, located between modern Rosie (Independence County) and Oil Trough (Independence County), where he lived with his wife, Mary Francis Franks, and their four sons and one daughter. He died there on April 18, 1880, and is buried in Maple Springs Cemetery. His wife married John B. Harris two years later and, in 1924, applied for a remarried widow’s pension, citing Franks’s service during the Civil War. In 1942, the U.S. Navy launched the USS Franks (DD-554), a Fletcher-class U.S. Navy destroyer named for William Joseph Franks.
For additional information:
Callahan, Edward W., ed. List of Officers of the Navy of the United States and of the Marine Corps from 1775 to 1900. New York: L. R. Hamersly and Company, 1901.
Medal of Honor Recipients 1863–1978, Prepared by the Committee on Veterans Affairs United States Senate, February 14, 1979. Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1979.
Olden, Sam. “March 5, 1864: The Day the War came to Yazoo.” Yazoo Herald, November 26, 1997, p. 7A. Online at https://yazoolibraryassociation.files.wordpress.com/2019/03/civil-war-activity.pdf (accessed December 21, 2020).
Smith, Myron J., Jr. Civil War Biographies from the Western Waters. Jefferson, NC: McFarland Publishing Co., 2015.
Mark K. Christ
Central Arkansas Library System
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