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Intrepid ship captain gets gold medal


The Ingraham medal. (Photos courtesy Stack's Bowers)

In 1848 the people of Central Europe arose against the decayed monarchies ruling them. The flame of rebellion spread far and wide but nowhere was the spark of freedom brighter than in Hungary, once the shining jewel of the Austrian Empire.

Under the leadership of Lajos Kossuth, the Hungarian people threw off the hated Austrian rule and established a brief independence that excited the world; the United States quickly recognized the new government, earning the hatred of the Austrians. It was to earn much more than that.

Its armies proving unequal to the task of suppressing the uprisings, the Austrian government asked Czar Nicholas I of Russia for help and soon Cossack legions were crossing the frontier and brutally crushing the rebellion; it was an eerie foretaste of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution.

Hungarian military leaders and their families soon fled for their lives; those who did not paid dearly. Austrian hangmen raged unchecked for months with even a cousin of Queen Victoria becoming a victim.

Martin Koszta (1829-1858) had enlisted in Kossuth’s army and quickly rose to the rank of Captain. He served with distinction against both the Austrians and the Russians, but was forced in 1849 to flee to Turkey, where the Ottoman Sultan gave him official protection. Koszta left for London in May 1850 but within a few months had arrived in New York City.

On July 31, 1852, Koszta made the most fateful decision of his life: he formally stated his intention of becoming an American citizen and was issued an official paper to this effect. Koszta found work in a lumberyard owned by August Ritter, a German refugee and fellow “48er.” Ritter’s business associates soon realized that Koszta spoke several languages and proposed sending him to Turkey to investigate import and export possibilities for the lumber industry. Koszta then sailed for Turkey in September 1852.

Koszta first went to Smyrna but also spent considerable time at Istanbul (Constantinople), then the capital of Turkey. In June 1853 he returned to Smyrna. Koszta was well aware that Austrian agents had assassinated a fellow exile in 1851, but apparently felt that the only necessary precaution was to notify the American consul at Smyrna, Edward Offley, of his presence.

On June 22 three heavily armed Turks, under orders and a liberal payment from Austrian Consul Peter von Weckbecker, kidnapped Koszta and carried him to an Austrian brig, the Hussar, then in Smyrna harbor. The stage was now set for a dramatic confrontation between the Old World and the New.

Koszta’s friends rushed to the American consul to ask his aid in saving their colleague. In an event more appropriate to fiction than real life, Offley then learned of the unexpected arrival of the U.S.S. St. Louis, under Capt. Duncan N. Ingraham (1802-1891), who had joined the United States Navy as a midshipman at the age of nine in June 1812.

The young age was not exactly rare in those days. Moreover, Ingraham’s father had served with distinction under John Paul Jones in 1779 in the famous battle with the Serapis. The deeds of the father probably influenced the decision to allow Ingraham to join at such a tender age.


Consul Offley immediately saw Ingraham and discussed the situation. The Consul also wrote the American Minister (Ambassador) in Istanbul for instructions. The difficulty was that Koszta was not technically a full American citizen, merely having signed a so-called “first paper.” No one was quite sure of the international meaning of such a document.

In the meantime Offley and Ingraham visited the Hussar, only to be very rudely informed by Capt. von Schwarz that Koszta was not on board; the next step was to call upon von Weckbecker, who stated that Koszta was in fact on board the ship. Infuriated at the deception, Ingraham returned to the Hussar and threatened retaliation if Koszta was not produced. He was, but heavily shackled and chained. The American commander at this point did nothing except verify Koszta’s identity and then left, pretending to be satisfied. Ingraham, however, promptly moved his more powerful ship into position to blockade the Austrian vessel, making escape with the captive impossible.

An angry Smyrna mob then murdered an Austrian naval cadet in retaliation for the kidnapping. Matters now grew even more tense.

The American Minister in Istanbul deciding that Koszta should be protected, Ingraham visited the Hussar early on July 2 and asked Koszta if he wished American protection. He did and Ingraham demanded his release. This was refused. Ingraham returned to the St. Louis and sent an ultimatum to the Austrian captain: Koszta by 4 p.m., or he would be taken by force of arms.

At 3 p.m., Ingraham ordered preparations for an assault and the heavy naval guns were loaded and carefully aimed, all of which could be seen clearly from the Hussar. A few minutes later several Austrian sailors – and one civilian – were seen getting into a small boat. The boat went ashore where Koszta was “interned” by the French consul. Ingraham had won the war of nerves. A few weeks later Koszta was permitted to return to the United States. He did not go back to Turkey, however.

There were celebrations in America when the news was received. In July 1854 Congress voted a gold medal to Ingraham for his bold actions but for some reason little was done for several months except to have a rough design prepared by Capt. Seth Eastman at the Navy Department.

Mint Engraver James Longacre agreed to execute the dies for $2,200 and his work was completed in November 1855. The massive gold medal (26.5 ounces) was then struck in early December and presented to Ingraham shortly thereafter.

One of Longacre’s enemies in the Mint tipped off the Treasury about the $2,200 and Longacre was forced to return the money. A little-known law made it illegal for him to be paid for this type of work because he was a government employee.

The four-inch Ingraham medal was the largest struck in America to that time and signifies the high importance attached to the protection of Americans abroad. (The Jefferson Indian Peace medals ranged up to four inches in diameter but they were hollow, not solid.) This huge medal is a fitting memorial to a man who did great service in the cause of freedom.

What became of the medal is unknown but Ingraham served with distinction in the United States Navy until the Civil War and then resigned to join the Confederate naval service. After 1865 he lived quietly at his South Carolina home until his death in 1891.

Koszta moved to Chicago after his return and then to Texas; in 1858 he went to Central America and abruptly disappeared; it is believed that he died in Guatemala fighting against one of the local dictators.

This article was originally printed in Numismatic News. >> Subscribe today.

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