2 Civil War soldiers to receive Medal of Honor for one of the Army’s earliest special ops missions

2 Civil War soldiers to receive Medal of Honor for one of the Army’s earliest special ops missions

Scott and Kimberly Chandler heard family stories growing up about their great-great-great grandfather, George Wilson, being a spy.

“Hearing from my mom, it was talked about in hush terms or whispers,” Kimberly Chandler said.

Wilson was born in Belmont County, Ohio, in 1830. He was a tradesman who supported his family as a journeyman shoemaker, according to the Army. Wilson enlisted in the Union Army’s 2nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment on Aug. 31, 1861.

Philip Shadrach enlisted into the same regiment the following month. He was born in Somerset County, Pa., in 1840, and left orphaned at an early age.

Less is known of Shadrach’s work, other than he was a “laborer.” But on Sept. 20, 1861, he left home and enlisted, according to the service. The two men eventually volunteered for the same mission and experienced the same fate.

Pvts. Wilson and Shadrach will be awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously Wednesday, becoming the last members of a unit known as Andrews’ Raiders to be recognized with the nation’s highest decoration for combat valor.

In one of the earliest special operations in Army history, Union soldiers dressed as civilians to infiltrate the Confederacy, hijack a train and drive it north for 87 miles, destroying enemy infrastructure along the way.

During what became known as the Great Locomotive Chase, six of the Union soldiers became the Army’s first recipients of the newly created Medal of Honor, according to the service.

The plan for the Great Locomotive Chase was hatched by James Andrews, a Kentucky-born civilian who served as a spy and scout. He proposed a group of volunteers penetrate the Confederacy with the aim of degrading the railway and communication lines that supported the South’s stronghold of Chattanooga, Tenn.

Andrews, another civilian and 22 volunteer Union soldiers, who later became known as Andrews’ Raiders, made their rendezvous point in Marietta, Ga. Shane Makowicki, a historian with the U.S. Army Center of Military History, said the plan was hatched April 6, 1862.

Wilson, Shadrach and the other soldiers volunteered one day later. They made it to Marietta on April 11. On April 12, 22 of them commandeered a locomotive known as the General and proceeded north, tearing up railroad tracks and cutting telegraph wires as they went along.

The General’s conductor, William Fuller, and two others began chasing the raiders — first on foot, then by a handcar, according to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society. Andrews’ efforts driving the General were slowed by their sabotage efforts and because he needed to permit oncoming trains to pass on the single-track railway. This allowed Fuller’s party to gain on the Union force.

Running low on fuel and with the Texas, a locomotive commandeered by Fuller, on their heels, Andrews’ Raiders abandoned their effort just 18 miles short of Chattanooga.

After it became clear the mission failed, Shadrach and Wilson along with several others attempted to evade Confederate troops and escape. Some including Shadrach and Wilson were eventually captured.

“The event, if it would have been successful and cut off Chattanooga from Confederate supplies, it could have shortened the war by a year, year and half, two years,” author and historian Brad Quinlin told reporters Tuesday.

Andrews was tried as a spy and saboteur and executed on June 7, 1862. Seven others were subsequently hanged, including Shadrach and Wilson, on June 18. Nineteen of the 22 Union soldiers received the Medal of Honor. One soldier was offered the medal but declined as he did not fully participate.

Former President George W. Bush signed the 2008 National Defense Authorization Act that included a measure to allow him to award Wilson and Shadrach with the medal. But Bush never did.

“The Civil War Medal of Honor is ancient history. Things moved in relevant and more current directions,” Ron Shadrach, a great cousin of Shadrach, said Tuesday.

Makowicki said it is important to remember the Medal of Honor at the time of the Civil War was a new award.

“Today we might think everybody on the mission would have good documentation and every soldier who participated would be awarded the medal just the same,” he said. “You often needed someone to advocate on your behalf if your officers had left the regiment. It was a bit more of an ad hoc process, so it really does appear to be by all accounts more of an oversight than certainly any comment on their behavior.”

Ron Shadrach, 67, from Independence, Ohio, remembers seeing a plaque his aunt showed him as a little kid that had the Shadrach name on it but didn’t know what it was about. In 2003, he saw a newspaper article pulling for Wilson and Shadrach to get the Medal of Honor.

“That started to connect the dots. Anytime I brought it up over the years my dad would say the same thing, ‘It’s something that happened down South and we’re totally not related,’” Shadrach said.

Once he learned of the relation, Shadrach started to work on getting the Medal of Honor for both men. He started compiling the information in 2012 and connected with Brad Quinlin.

Shadrach had a binder of information that he submitted in February 2016 to Gen. Mark Milley who was the Army Chief of Staff at the time. The binder includes drawings of Wilson and Shadrach before being executed by hanging. There were photos of letters that the private’s youngest sister wrote for 20 years trying to get back pay and any rations that Shadrach was eligible for while in a Confederate prison.

“I didn’t have much patience with the government for these delays. It’s like, ‘This makes no sense,’” Shadrach said. “If not for that delay, I wouldn’t have had time to put this document together. It wouldn’t have uncovered all this information. It’s like a blessing in disguise.”

Scott Chandler, 61, from Fredericktown, Ohio, said he got into this story back in 2020 when there was talk about Wilson receiving the Medal of Honor. But his family didn’t have much knowledge of Wilson.

“I just had the thought — My mom’s [older than] 80, her sisters aren’t far behind her in age so I started pushing for it because I wanted to see her be able to accept it,” Chandler said.

He heard the award was on the president’s desk so there wasn’t much he could do. During that time, Chandler started doing his own research. He used some information that his mother had and was sharing some with his sister, Kimberly, 59, who lives in Walla Walla, Wash., with her family.

In accounts about Wilson, he was fighting to help keep the Union together and it appeared he wanted slavery abolished. There is a drawing that depicts Wilson and the men being hung. He gave a final statement, saying he had “no ill-will toward the South” and ended it by saying “one day the Union flag will fly over your states again,” according to Chandler.

Chandler said his mother and her two sisters will keep Wilson’s Medal of Honor for a while but will donate it afterward to the National Medal of Honor Heritage Center in Chattanooga, Tenn. The medal will be displayed in the same city where Wilson is buried at the Chattanooga National Cemetery.