Navy Quartermaster John Cooper wasn’t born in the United States, but once he immigrated here at age 17, he chose to serve his adopted country. By doing so, he became one of only 19 Medal of Honor recipients to earn the military’s highest honor twice.
Cooper was born John Laver Mather in Dublin, Ireland, on July 24, 1828. Little is known about his life before he moved to the U.S., but after he did so in August 1845, he immediately joined the Navy and decided to go by the last name Cooper.
According to military pension documents, Cooper served in the Mexican-American War before being discharged in 1849. In 1856, he married Mary O’Keeffe. The couple went on to have three sons: John Jr., Edward and William.
When the Civil War broke out, the 36-year-old Cooper re-enlisted in the Navy and spent time on several ships over the next few years.
The action for which he earned his first Medal of Honor happened on Aug. 5, 1864, while he was serving as a coxswain on the USS Brooklyn. As the ship and others in its fleet sailed past Forts Morgan and Gaines and into Mobile Bay, Alabama, they were engaged by rebels from the forts and in gunboats, including the Confederate navy ramming ship CSS Tennessee.
Enemy fire severely damaged the USS Brooklyn and killed several of its men, but Cooper remained calm, using his gun with “skill and courage,” according to his Medal of Honor citation. By the end of the battle, the Union ships had succeeded in anchoring beyond the reach of the Confederate forts’ guns. The fighting heavily damaged batteries at Fort Morgan, and it led to the surrender of the Tennessee, which was eventually incorporated into the Union Navy and was used throughout the rest of the war.
The general order that awarded Cooper the highest medal for valor was announced on Dec. 31, 1864. It’s unclear when he actually received it.
Cooper earned his second Medal of Honor on April 26, 1865, just weeks after the Civil War ended. Still in Mobile, he was stationed on the USS Stockdale and served as a quartermaster on Acting Rear Adm. H.K. Thatcher’s staff.
According to historical records, ordnance stores at a warehouse in the city exploded, setting a good section of the city on fire. Some of the debris even landed on the Union fleet’s flagship about three-quarters of a mile away, naval records show. With part of the city on fire, help of any kind was needed, so several sailors from the fleet were called upon to assist firefighters.
Despite the threat of being hit by exploding shells coming from the warehouse, Cooper moved through the burning city to search for survivors. His citation says he rescued a wounded man from certain death, carrying the man on his back to safety.
About two months later, it was announced that Cooper would earn a second Medal of Honor for that feat. Only one other sailor received two Medals of Honor from the Civil War era — Boatswain’s Mate Patrick Mullen.
Cooper was discharged from the Navy in October 1866.
It’s unclear what Cooper did during his post-war life, but he lived for another 25 years. He died at age 63 on Aug. 22, 1891, at a hospital on Staten Island, New York. Cooper was buried in Cypress Hills National Cemetery in Brooklyn.
This article is part of a weekly series called “Medal of Honor Monday” in which we highlight one of the more than 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the U.S. military’s highest medal for valor.