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William Neilson Hall Awarded the Victoria Cross

For the week of Monday November 15, 2010

On November 16, 1857, William Neilson Hall played a crucial role in a battle that earned him the Victoria Cross, the highest military decoration in the Commonwealth countries, awarded for valour and bravery. Recognized with such honours on October 28, 1859, Hall was the first person of African descent, the first Nova Scotian, and the third Canadian to receive the Victoria Cross.

Postage Stamp featuring William Neilson Hall
© Canada Post Corporation 2010

William Neilson Hall is reputed to have been born on April 25, 1829, in Horton’s Bluff, Nova Scotia, to Jacob and Lucinda Hall, former slaves who had fled the United States after the War of 1812. Living so close to the open water, Hall was drawn to the shipyards and a life at sea, joining the crew of a merchant vessel when he was 17 years old.

After briefly serving in the American navy in the late 1840s, Hall enlisted in the British Royal Navy in February 1852. Over the next four years, Hall developed his fighting and leadership skills while participating in the siege of Sevastopol, Ukraine, and the Battle of Inkerman during the Crimean War (1853-56). In 1856, Hall joined the warship Shannon and was quickly promoted to Leading Gunner, then Captain of the Mast, and then Captain of the Foretop.

The Victoria Cross
© David Ashe / Natural Resources Canada
When the Indian regiments of the British army rebelled in 1857 during a revolt against British (and European) presence in India, the Shannon was immediately ordered to help stop them. The crewmen were assembled into a naval brigade and sent to Lucknow, India, where a British garrison had been besieged by mutineers. The expedition arrived on November 16, 1857, and was directed towards a mosque occupied by rebel forces. The plan was to breach the walls by firing continuous volleys of ammunition. However, the rebel forces were well prepared and fired back on the British. Six men in one gun crew, and all but Hall and Lieutenant Thomas James Young in another gun crew, were killed. Risking their lives, Hall and Young kept firing until British troops could enter the building. Their determination to breach the mosque was essential to helping British forces end the siege.

Hall remained in the British navy until his retirement on June 10, 1876. He returned to his hometown and took up farming. He died on August 25, 1904, in Avonport, Nova Scotia. His nomination for the Victoria Cross was crucial to establishing a race-free eligibility for the award. For his contribution to his country, William Neilson Hall was designated a National Historic Person in 2008.

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