Civil War Heroes Receive Long Overdue Medal of Honor

Civil War Heroes Receive Long Overdue Medal of Honor

Photo by: Courtesy

More than 160 years after participating in what’s now known as the Great Locomotive Chase, Pvts. Philip Shadrach and George Wilson were posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.

The two Civil War heroes were recognized with the nation’s highest award for valor by President Joe Biden during a July 3 ceremony at the White House.

“This was a long time coming,” Biden said during the ceremony, as he described the Great Locomotive Chase as “one of the most daring operations in the entire Civil War.”

“The risks to this mission were enormous,” Biden said. “All the men were given the chance to walk away. Not one of them did.”

Gerald Taylor, Shadrach’s great-great nephew, and Theresa Chandler, Wilson’s great-great granddaughter, accepted the award from the president.

“To volunteer for a venture they knew little about, and to know if they failed, they would be put to death, makes me realize how dedicated they were,” Taylor said. “I am humbled to have the opportunity to come and receive the Medal of Honor that was awarded to our relative.”

Shadrach and Wilson belonged to the 2nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment.

In April 1862, they joined 20 other Union soldiers and two civilians on a daring mission led by James Andrews, a Kentucky-born civilian spy, to infiltrate Confederate territory, steal a locomotive and drive it north while destroying enemy railroad tracks and telegraph lines.

The goal was to destroy rail and communication lines and prevent reinforcements from interfering with an attempted capture of Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Shadrach was just 21 years old.

The Union team, which became known as Andrews’ Raiders, infiltrated the South in small groups, dressing in civilian clothes to avoid suspicion. On April 12 at Big Shanty, Georgia, 22 of the raiders commandeered a locomotive known as the General. They uncoupled the engine, fuel car and three boxcars before escaping with the train, according to the Army. They sped up the track, cut telegraph lines and tried to burn bridges along the way, according to the Army.

William Fuller, the General’s conductor, led a small party in pursuit, first on foot, then by handcar and three locomotives, according to an Army account.

Andrews and his fellow raiders were slowed by oncoming trains as they navigated the single-track railway, allowing Fuller’s party to slowly gain on them. “They kept going for nearly seven hours,” Biden said.

After 87 miles and running low on fuel, the Union team abandoned its effort just 18 miles shy of Chattanooga and fled into the countryside. “But one by one, Confederate soldiers, supporters and their bloodhounds rounded them up,” Biden said.

Held in a tiny, underground room, chained and starved, the raiders “remained unbowed and unbroken,” Biden said.

Andrews and seven soldiers, including Shadrach and Wilson, were tried and convicted as spies. Andrews was executed on June 7, 1862, while the seven soldiers were executed by hanging on June 18,1862.

Historical documents show that just before Wilson was put to death, he addressed the crowd and said he felt no hostility toward them and did not regret dying for his country because he knew the people would soon see the Union flag flying over them once again, according to the Army.

“Until the very end, George and Philip believed in the United States of America,” Biden said.

Chandler said she got chills when she read about what Wilson said. “It brought everything home, and you get so much more respect and appreciation for what they did and what they were fighting for,” she said.

The remaining raiders escaped their captors, but six were recaptured, according to the Army. Those men were returned almost a year later in a prisoner exchange, according to the Army. On March 25, 1863, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton presented the first Medals of Honor to those six members of the raid, handing the very first medal to Pvt. Jacob Parrott.

Parrott, who has the distinction of being the first soldier ever to receive the Medal of Honor, was highlighted in 2021 as part of the Association of the U.S. Army’s graphic novel series on recipients of the nation’s highest valor award.

In later years, 13 other raiders also received the Medal of Honor.

All the other soldiers who participated in the Great Locomotive Chase received the Medal of Honor during or shortly after the war, said Brad Quinlin, a historian and author who helped submit the Medal of Honor recommendation packet for Shadrach and Wilson. One soldier turned down the medal because he felt he didn’t deserve it.

Shadrach and Wilson, however, were overlooked.

“I’ve always had knowledge of the Great Locomotive Chase, living in Georgia, and I always wondered why these two men never had the Medal of Honor,” Quinlin said.

Historians believe it’s because their unit was decimated at the Battle of Chickamauga in September 1863, leading their officers to be reassigned to other regiments. “At that moment, during our history, nobody was there to stand up for them and move this,” Quinlin said.

“Even their comrades, I don’t think they realized that these two men never had the medal, that their paperwork never got through,” Quinlin said. “There was nothing anywhere in my research that said these two men did not do what these [other] men had done. Their bravery, their dedication to the republic, was exactly the same.”

Shane Makowicki, a historian with the U.S. Army Center of Military History, agreed, adding that the Medal of Honor was still a very new award at the time. “It does appear to be more of an oversight,” he said.

The Great Locomotive Chase is a story of American soldiers far from home committing extraordinary acts in defense of their country, Makowicki said.

It also wasn’t just a daring mission. It was one of strategic importance, Quinlin said. “The event, if it had been successful and cut off Chattanooga, it could have shortened the war by a year, two years,” he said.

It’s taken more than 12 years to secure this recognition for Wilson and Shadrach, said Quinlin, who became involved in righting that wrong when he was approached for help by Ron Shadrach, a relative of Pvt. Shadrach. The effort to secure the Medal of Honor was “consuming,” Ron Shadrach said. “Based on its own merit, this should have happened long ago,” he said.

Brian Taylor, Wilson’s great-great-great-nephew, said he is struck by how much energy and effort has gone into honoring the two soldiers. “After 160 years of not having a medal, that the government, the Army would do this, would put so much weight on it, we’re just really, really happy and grateful to be here,” he said.

Having the Medal of Honor ceremony on the eve of Independence Day is a full circle moment, Theresa Chandler said. “He was willing to give his life for [his country],” she said. “Being able to finally get the medal awarded to them and it being the Fourth of July, the birthday of our country and the freedom we have, I’m honored. Our family is honored.”