Twin Lights & The Medal of Honor

I wrote this story back on May 9, 2016, for the Atlantic Highlands Herald, the nation’s first official online-only newspaper

HIGHLANDS – He was the third assistant lighthouse keeper at the Twin Lights from 1906 to 1910, but Robert Blume brought a bit of history and pride to this community he called home long before his term at the lighthouse.

He is the only resident of the borough who has ever received the Congressional Medal of Honor, and his story is one of harrowing actions, extreme bravery, and remarkable seamanship, all in the name of protecting the United States.

Blume, a native of Pittsburgh, was a Sailor with seven years in the US Navy when he signed on at the Lighthouse in 1906. He had been discharged under favorable conditions two years before, as a Chief Master of Arms, had a wife and one son. His first daughter would be born at the Lighthouse the following year, and a month later baptized at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church.

But it was his service during the Spanish American War that gained Blume his rightful place in American history.

Blume was a seaman in 1898, 30 years old, serving aboard the USS Nashville, a gunboat commissioned the year before in Norfolk, Va. His ship and the USS Marblehead, the most powerful warship in the little flotilla of five ships, were sent to form a blockade along the southern coast of Cuba, at the seaport town of Cienfuegos, critically important to the Spanish because of its telegraphic capabilities. It was three months after the sinking of the USS Maine which had launched the United States into the Spanish American War and a time when the Twin Light’s other and more famous personage, Guglielmo Marconi, was still working on his own telegraph system which he installed at the lighthouse the following year.

The Spanish had their own telegraph system in the late 1890s, and through a trio of underwater cables in the Caribbean Sea connected to a cable house on shore near Cienfuegos, were able to keep communications open between Havana, Cuba’s capital, Santiago, another port city in Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti and Spain.

The captain of the USS Marblehead knew the most successful, as well as the most dangerous means of disrupting these communications came from severing the underwater cables and rendering them useless. Blume was one of the 52 Sailors, 26 from each of the two ships, who volunteered to take on the dangerous missions, traveling in small boats between his ship and the cable house, while the American ships and Spanish troops on land were exchanging gunfire over their heads. Blume was one of nine seamen on his ship, together with four coxswains, a coal passer, blacksmith, oiler, carpenter’s mate, sailmaker’s mate, landsman, and seven Marines to volunteer for the missions.

The men were taken by steam cutter closer to the shore to be launched in their rowboats, under fire, and proceed closer inshore to locate the underwater cables, grapple them onto the boats, and cut and toss them further out to sea, all while gunfire was still being exchanged between their ships and Spanish soldiers on land. Gunfire from the ship had successfully blown up the cable shack but rendering the cables useless meant repairs could not be made, as they could easily and quickly be accomplished at the cable shack. During the crossfire, the small boats were frequently hit, and the Sailors and Marines quickly used their own bullets to plug the holes below the waterline.

The team was successful in cutting two of the two-inch-thick cables, using hacksaws, and working within 100 feet of the shoreline, battling both difficulty in reaching the cable because of huge coral outgrowths, rough seas and high waves. Rendering communications between Cuba and the outside world useless, the men returned to the cutters that would take them back to their ships, still under heavy gunfire.

In the end, the entire activity had taken place in three hours, one Marine was killed, one Sailor died later of his wounds and several others had been seriously wounded. The Nashville and the Marblehead pulled out to sea, and the Spanish American War ended with the signing of a ceasefire three months later.

There were 100 Medal of Honor recipients during the Spanish American War, including the 52 issued that day to the 52 men of the Nashville and the Marblehead. But their Awards, all almost identical, simply give the place, date and ship on which each hero served, along with the simple description of the heroism which earned them the award.

Blume’s Medal of Honor citation says simply:

“On board the USS Nashville during the cutting of the cable leading from Cienfuegos, Cuba, 11 May, 1898. Facing the heavy fire of the enemy, he set an example of extraordinary bravery and coolness throughout this action.”

Make plans to see the current exhibition at the Twin Lights Museum, they have great items in their Museum and as a little known fact, the Twin Lights is where the Pledge of Allegiance was first publicly recited.


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