Wednesday, October 16, 2013

My Not-So-Honorable, Heroic Ancestor

Possibly unprecedented - that was the comment from officials regarding the move to reenlist of Michael Swenson, latest recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Rare?  Certainly.  Unprecedented?  Not in my family!

My ancestral cousin, Michael Deneef, was a "Captain of the Top" on the U.S.S. Swatara in 1871. While the ship was docked at Para, Brazil, one of Deneef's shipmates fell overboard.  Braving rough seas, Deneef jumped in after the man and guided him to safety.

(An interesting aside - Deneef's distinction was a so-called "Peacetime Medal of Honor", which was given out for a few years in the late 19th century.)

After spending nine years in the Navy, Deneef's service came to an end, and he returned to his hometown of Dedham, MA.  But his shore leave didn't last long.  In 1875, he reenlisted at Boston, under the rank of "seaman" (apparently, he wasn't able to keep his previous rank).

Deneef's second tour was not nearly as auspicious as his first.  After a couple of years, he went AWOL, and never returned to the ship.  His first tour included stops at exotic ports in the Mediterranean and Far East; his second involved only monotonous maneuvers off the coast of the Northeast.  Perhaps he became bored?  

In any event, he returned once more to his hometown of Dedham, where he married a Canadian woman and had a daughter.  The marriage didn't last long; three years later, he was living alone in a Dedham boarding house owned by his brother-in-law.

In 1891, Deneef died of "apoplexy".  He is buried in a family plot in Brookdale Cemetery, Dedham.

Learning about his life sparked a roller-coaster of emotions.  At first, I felt elated that someone in my family tree had received the country's highest military honor!  Later, I experienced confusion and disappointment when I learned that he was guilty of desertion - perhaps the worst military dishonor, other than treason.

People are complex.  Life is a conundrum.  I'll probably never know why my ancestor behaved as he did.  Still, he saved another human life, and I am proud of him for that.  He deserves his place in history, along with Captain Swenson and every other American who has served this country with honor.