We have been bombarded in the last few years with supposedly new truths: Benghazi’s Americans couldn’t be rescued, the IRS censors certain citizens, Americans can’t be trusted to make a cell phone call without Big Brother, and the American citizen is only capable of buying a substandard health policy. In short, today the value of a single citizen is viewed as less by our national leaders. The story of the USS Ingraham stands in stark contrast in defining the value of a single American.
The USS Ingraham (FFG 61) is a guided missile frigate currently on active duty in the U S Navy. Three previous ships named Ingraham were destroyers.
Duncan Ingraham was born in Charleston, South Carolina in 1802. He graduated from the US Naval academy and had a distinguished naval career, ultimately achieving the rank of Captain.
He assumed command of the USS St. Louis, a sloop of war, which had 10 cannons on each side. The St. Louis was assigned to the US fleet in the Mediterranean Sea in the 1850s.
It was during this tour of duty in which Captain Ingraham encountered a man whose name was Martin Koszta, (aka Koscha) and thereby assured his place in US and Naval history.
Martin Koszta was Hungarian and had participated in Hungary’s attempt to achieve independence from Austria. When the revolt failed, Koszta fled to the United States.
In the US, Koszta prospered as an importer. He returned to Europe on business. Prior to his departure, Koszta applied for citizenship in the United States (he “took out his first set of papers”).
On his trip to Europe, Koszta was accompanied by his manservant to whom he declared the wonders of the United States and described the American flag in great detail.
Koszta arrived in a Mediterranean port. In the same port was moored the USS St. Louis, commanded by Captain Duncan Ingraham, as well as the much larger Austrian warship, Hussar.
Ashore, the Austrian consul learned of Koszta’s arrival and also knew his history in the Hungarian revolt. He had Koszta kidnapped and transferred to the Hussar where he was imprisoned aboard ship.
When Koszta failed to return, his manservant began a search. Unable to locate Koszta, and becoming desperate, the manservant stopped when he found something he recognized: the American flag unfurled on the USS St. Louis. The manservant told his story to its captain.
Ingraham went to the US consulate in port to learn what he could of the man’s whereabouts. Koszta was located. At that moment, Duncan Ingraham said: “I am the senior officer in this port and I believe, under my oath of office, that I owe this man the protection of our flag.”
On his own initiative, Ingraham proceeded to the Hussar and asked to speak with the admiral. That request granted, Ingraham then demanded to see Koszta. The prisoner was brought to the deck, in chains, and had obviously been beaten.
At this moment, Captain Ingraham approached Koszta and said: “I will ask you one question; consider your answer carefully. Do you ask the protection of the American flag?” Kosta, without a sound, nodded “Yes.” Ingraham answered: “You shall have it.”
After returning to the St. Louis, Ingraham informed the Austrian admiral that any attempt to leave the harbor with a US citizen would be met with appropriate force. A 4 p.m. deadline was given. As 4 o’clock neared, Ingraham ordered that the cannons, all 10 on the side, were to be moved into the ports and the tapers, used to set off the cannons, were lighted.
Suddenly, the lookout in the tower called out: “Captain, they’re lowering a boat!” Martin Koszta was rowed to the American ship.
The first USS Ingraham was commissioned in 1918 and a warship of the same name continues on active duty to this day.
Duncan Ingraham knew, as all true leaders know, that leadership is done from the front, is based on a core set of values and principles, and that great humility after the battle anchors everything. (He had offered to resign afterward if his actions had embarrassed the US). Duncan Ingraham drew a red line, and knew the meaning of a red-line drawn. He knew, and those in that Mediterranean port knew, the value of a single American’s liberty, and life. The value was pledged by a naval captain, to include his life, that of his entire crew, and his warship.
We are not the America of Benghazi where patriots were left to die with no effort made to save them. We are not the America of a politicized IRS who attacks its own citizens. Those moments are aberrancies needing correction, not the rule, in the American experience.
John Kennedy said a nation is defined not only by who it remembers, but also by who it honors. America is well defined by remembering and honoring Duncan Ingraham for almost 100 years.
Millions of men and women like Ingraham have been standing up among us for almost 300 years, and they are the very definition of American exceptionalism. This is the America we grew up in, and it is the nation we expect to be.
God bless the USS Ingraham, and the officers and sailors who take her in harm’s way, knowing the value of every single American, every single day.
Bill Hodges is a retired physician who lives in Morgan Mill with his wife of 40 years. He is also a member of the E-T's community columnists.