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Captain Michael A. "Hell Roaring Mike" Healy, U.S.R.C.S. (1839 - 1904)

"When I am in charge of a vessel, I always command; nobody commands but me. I take all the responsibility, all the risks, all the hardships that my office would call upon me to take. I do not steer by any man’s compass but my own."
    - Captain Michael A. Healy (1839-1904)

Slavery and early life

Michael A. Healy was born on a plantation near Macon, Georgia on September 22, 1839 to Michael Morris Healy and Mary Eliza Clark. His father was a plantation farmer, and his mother a slave. Although his parents were married, and his father a freeman of Irish origins, their marriage was illegal and Georgia law at the time decreed Michael the younger and his 9 siblings slaves.

To avoid this bit of unpleasant legality, and because as property his children could not attend school in Georgia, Michael's father sent the children north to Massachusetts to educate them at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester.

Michael continually ran away from this school and others in Canada and Belgium, for reasons unknown, and in 1855, at the age of 15, made his way to England1 where he signed with one Captain Barnes aboard the the East-India clipper Jumna as a cabin boy bound for Calcutta.

The Sailor

He spent several years on Mediterranean merchant vessels and rose--by his own account--to the rank of First Mate. After the U.S. Civil War broke out, Healy returned to Boston where his surviving family lived. In 1863 he joined the U.S. Revenue Marine (a precursor to the modern U.S. Coast Guard) as a sailor. Then, in January of 1865, he applied for an officer's appointment in the USRCS. The commission was granted and President Abraham Lincoln awarded him 3rd Lieutenant on March 5, 1865. Shortly after his commission, Healy married Mary Jane Roach of Boston.

Healy was promoted to 2nd Lieutenant in 1866, and served as a junior officer on several Revenue cutters2. He steadily rose through the ranks, being promoted to 1st Lieutenant in 1870, taking his first command aboard the cutter Rush in 1877, and finally being promoted to Captain in March of 1883.

Healy's Fire Canoe

In 1886, Captain Healy took command of the cutter Bear, a converted whaling ship purchased from Scotland two years prior which became the flagship of the Baltic Fleet. The Bear was more than just a ship though. It served as a floating government and the primary presence of the United States in the recently purchased territory of Alaska. It delivered supplies, medical assistance, and performed various rescues throughout its Alaskan service. The natives of Alaska called the Bear "Healy's Fire Canoe."

In 1888, four ships of the Alaska whaling fleet broke apart in a heavy storm near Point Barrow. Healy and his crew performed an historic rescue operation saving 160 sailors of the sunken fleet.

In addition, Healy teamed up with the missionary Sheldon Jackson in a number of attempts at improving the lives of the native population of Alaska. Most notable was the ongoing transport of reindeer across the strait from Siberia in the hopes that the American-side natives would emulate their Russian cousins and herd them.

Drunkenness and Disgrace

The times they were a-changing, though, and Healy's frontier justice (in the form of tricing3 crew and others) met up against charges of drunkenness and abuse in 1890. He managed to avoid disciplinary action on the first go-round, but then in 1896 he was relieved of command and stricken from the captain's list for a period of four years.

The circumstances surrounding these attacks on Healy are rather unusual. Many believe them to be a clash between the "newly civilized" Western United States and the last remnants of frontier mentality. The California Women's Christian Temperance Union led the attacks against Healy, painting him as a beast. This unusual sort of beast had previously won the gold medal from the Massachusetts Humane Society, and unlike most westerners had treated the Native Americans in the Alaskan region with respect, dignity, and care.

The point on which he was finally disgraced in 1896 was his repeated drunkenness on duty.

Restoration to the Lists

In 1890, Healy was partially restored and given temporary command of the McCulloch. Over the next decade he was also given command of the Golden Gate and Hartley. Then, in 1902, he was fully restored to the lists as the third highest ranking officer in the Revenue Cutter Service and given full command of the Thetis.

He retired from active service on September 22, 1903, and less than a year later on August 30, 1904, died of a heart attack in San Francisco. He is buried in Colma, California.


In spite of the controversy surrounding parts of Healy's later career, the U.S. Coast Guard has vindicated him. In August of 2000, the USCGC Healy was commissioned. The Healy was at the time of its commision the most advanced icebreaker in the Coast Guard Fleet, and engages primarily in scientific missions in the Arctic.

1Sources disagree, and most say Boston, but the National Archives, wherein is contained much of his personal correspondence and all of his service record, and which is thusly the most authoritative source, says England.

2USRCS cutters Reliance, Vigilant, Moccassin, and Active

3An old naval punishment involving tying and hoisting sailors in a particularly painful fashion.