Wilson Brown was born August 1841, a slave in Natchez, Mississippi. In March of 1863 at the age of twenty-one, Brown escaped slavery and enlisted in the Navy on the Mississippi River. He was trained and assigned to the duty of shell-boy aboard the flagship, USS Hartford, under the command of Admiral D. G. Farragut. On August 5, 1864, during the Battle of Mobile Bay, Admiral Farragut led a squadron of eighteen Union ships, including the Hartford, into the Confederate-held Mobile Bay. As the squadron came under fire from Fort Morgan, Fort Gaines, and Confederate ships, Brown and five other sailors worked on the Hartford's berth deck loading and operating the shell whip, a device which lifted boxes of gunpowder up to the gun deck.
As they worked, a Confederate shell exploded in their station. Brown was blown through a hatch and landed unconscious on the deck below; the dead body of another man landed on top of him. The only other of the six men to survive was Landsman John Lawson. Although wounded in the leg, Lawson refused medical treatment and returned to working the shell whip. After regaining consciousness, Brown did the same. The two men continued in their duties, keeping the ship's guns supplied with powder, through the remainder of the battle. For these actions, both Brown and Lawson were awarded the Medal of Honor four months later, on December 31, 1864. Brown remained in the Navy and served aboard the USS Washington until 19 May 1865, when he was discharged because of disability. Brown died 24 January 1900, and was interred in the National Cemetery of