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Civil War soldiers in wild train hijacking receive Medal of Honor

Two U.S. soldiers, executed 162 years ago for their role in a daring Civil War mission to hijack a locomotive and sabotage a rail line vital to the Confederacy, were recognized Wednesday with the nation’s highest military decoration, joining several comrades whose audacious battlefield exploits were recognized generations ago.

Descendants of Pvts. Philip G. Shadrach and George D. Wilson, members of the Union Army’s 2nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment, received the Medal of Honor on their behalf during a White House ceremony led by President Biden.

“Every soldier who joined that mission was awarded the Medal of Honor, except for two soldiers who died because of that operation, but never received this recognition,” Biden said. “Today, we right that wrong.”

The event closed a decades-long campaign by the men’s families to rectify what they and many historians came to see as an unjust oversight in recognizing everyone involved in what became known as the Great Locomotive Chase.

Shadrach and Wilson were among a group of 24 who carried out the brazen plan in April 1862, commandeering a train outside Atlanta and blazing an 87-mile path of destruction north through Georgia to the Tennessee line with adversaries in hot pursuit. When the chase finally ended, the raiders were captured, and eight were put to death. Most escaped, though several were held as prisoners of war for nearly a year.

Nineteen soldiers received the Medal of Honor — including the first ever awarded — for their role in the mission. (Several of them were recognized posthumously.) Another soldier, captured before the raid began, later refused the award, historians said. Two others involved were civilians and did not rate it.

In an emotional discussion with reporters on Tuesday, Shadrach’s and Wilson’s descendants swelled with pride knowing that the efforts of their ancestors and their families’ grass-roots lobbying effort, alongside historians, will at last be recognized.

Some who made the trip to Washington were acquainted with the story long ago. Others, including Wilson’s great-great-granddaughter Theresa Chandler, learned from the Army only four years ago that her lineage included a prominent Civil War figure.

Now 85, she said it has reshaped a legacy nearly lost to history.

“I would have given anything,” she said, “to be able to say, ‘Grandpa, tell me about it. … What was it like?’”

The mission was born from a desire to destroy the South’s ability to move troops and military equipment.

Maj. Gen. Ormsby M. Mitchel, assigned by the Union to its Tennessee campaign, mulled how to best attack Chattanooga, a well-defended Confederate citadel located along vital water and rail lines. If invaded head on, the rebels could flood the area with reinforcements on train cars from the south and overwhelm U.S. forces, he concluded.

James J. Andrews, a civilian spy for the North, crafted a novel solution. A small team of volunteers would travel 200 miles into Confederate territory dressed as civilians, steal a train engine, and then destroy tracks and burn bridges to strangle the secessionists’ logistical lines.

The plan faced setbacks from the start, said Shane Makowicki, a historian with the U.S. Army Center of Military History. It had rained ahead of the mission, making it difficult to ignite the bridges. The soldiers lacked tools and had to improvise, he said. And while some had experience with trains, there were little if any preparations undertaken beforehand.

“That speaks to the courage and heroism of these men that they volunteered for this,” Makowicki said. “Today, if we were going to send people to do this, you have months or weeks of specialized training.”

The mission, lead by Andrews, began north of Atlanta in present day Kennesaw, Ga., where the team seized a locomotive named the General and its three boxcars. The conductor, William Fuller, gathered a party and gave chase on foot before taking over a hand car and eventually several other locomotives to catch up with the Union soldiers.

The raid party made periodic stops to tear out track ties and sever telegraph cables in a bid to prevent other Confederate troops from learning about the raid. Oncoming trains on the single track forced the General to stop several times, according to an Army summary of the mission.

In other cases, the raiders employed subterfuge to make it past authorities. At one stop, Andrews told a station master he was orders from Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard to deliver ammunition to Confederate troops in Chattanooga. The station master allowed them to pass.

As Fuller and his party closed in, the Union raiders aboard the General, low on wood to feed the engine, abandoned the locomotive 18 miles short of Chattanooga, the Army said. The men scattered, but all were eventually captured within two weeks.

Chattanooga fell the next year.

Andrews and seven others, including Shadrach, 21, and Wilson, 32, were tried as spies and saboteurs and hanged. Jacob Parrott, who was severely beaten in captivity, was among those who survived the ordeal and later made history as the first service member to receive the Medal of Honor.

Historians and family members could only speculate why Shadrach and Wilson were overlooked for so long. The unit was involved in heavy fighting afterward, and officers who would have kept track of such accomplishments were pushed to other units, said Brad Quinlin, a historian and author involved in advocating the men’s Medals of Honor.

Some members of the Shadrach family had pushed for the recognition since the Carter administration, they said. A 2008 spending bill included a provision to award the medal to the two men, but momentum did not pick up until 2012, when Quinlin and family member Ron Shadrach met. They later submitted fresh evidence for defense officials to review.

“There was nothing anywhere in any of my research, any documentation, that said these men did not do what the others have done,” Quinlin said.

Although the mission ultimately failed, it is remembered as a prominent moment of the Civil War and has yielded books and films, including Buster Keaton’s “The General” in 1926 and “The Great Locomotive Chase” in 1956.

Brian Taylor, Shadrach’s great-great-great-nephew, said delving into family history left him in awe, and doing so with his father deepened their relationship. They lovingly call Shadrach “Uncle Stealer,” and Taylor once climbed aboard the General, now a museum piece in Georgia.

Ahead of the White House ceremony, Taylor strummed an acoustic guitar and crooned a song he wrote about the mission. “Do it for the glory, boys,” he sang, “because you may not find your way back home tonight.”

This post appeared first on The Washington Post
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