James W. Carlin was born in 1844 in a log cabin that is thought to have stood on the southeast corner of the square in Carthage, Illinois. In 1862, at the age of 18, he enlisted in the 118th Regiment and fought in the Civil War, inlcuding the battle of Walnut Hills. In 1864, he received an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, graduating in 1868.
Commander Carlin served for over 30 years in the navy. A high point in his career was his bravery during the hurricane at Apla, Samoa in 1889, as an officer serving in the USS Vandalia. Seven vessels were crowded in the small harbor. The Vandalia was smashed against a reef, settled, and began filling with water.
When the captain of Vandalia was washed overboard, Carlin assumed command and ordered his men to climb into the rigging. When another ship, Trenton, was borne down upon them, he ordered his crew to leap to her decks. His actions saved all but 39 of the crew.
The officers of the USS Vandalia. Lieutenant Carlin is seated third from the left. Source: http://www.history.navy.mil
A banquet in his honor was held in San Francisco on June 5, 1889. One of the guests was Rudyard Kipling, who describes the event in his “American Notes” (Kipling’s biting wit about the event can be read in full here.) He was quite cynical about the speeches until Carlin rose to speak. Kipling notes, “Such a big brave gentle giant! He rose to his feet and delivered what seemed to me as the speech of the evening…and I for one fell in love with Carlin on the spot. He was a man!” (In another testament to Carlin’s nature, as well as some insight into the recollected horrors of the hurricane in Samoa, the Army Navy Journal published an article in 1900 about his encounter with a mouse.)
Carlin died of typhoid fever on December 13, 1900, aboard the vessel City of Peking, two days out of Manila, enroute home. When Carlin was buried in Carthage, a company of naval reservists, an infantry company, and a drum corps came on a special train from Quincy, IL. They marched to the home of his sister and her husband, Mr. and Mrs. W. E. Boswell on South Madison Street, located at the present site of the gray apartment house on the east side of Madison. There, the body lay in state, clothed in an “undress” navy uniform with an officer’s cap on his breast. At the opera house (now the site of the city library), the procession was joined by Alexander Sympson Post of Grand Army of the Republic and proceeded to the Methodist Church. Stores were closed and schools dismissed for the occasion.
Following the service, the cortege proceeded to the old Carthage cemetery where Carlin was buried next to his parents. There, a modest grey headstone bearing an anchor still marks his grave.
His uniform is on display at the Kibbe Museum.
More about Commander Carlin: