John Shearer: Visiting The Graves Of The 2 Newest Medal Of Honor Recipients

  • Friday, July 5, 2024
  • John Shearer

While July 4 is a quieter day for Chattanooga’s National Cemetery compared to the more military-focused holidays of Memorial Day and Veterans Day, plenty of attention was on these hallowed grounds Thursday – at least from afar.

That was because most Chattanooga area citizens were learning for the first time about the announcement that Union Civil War soldiers Pvt. Philip G. Shadrach and Pvt. George D. Wilson were honored with Medals of Honor Wednesday by President Joe Biden.

Of the eight members of the Andrews’ Raiders group buried in the circle around the General monument after having been hanged after the chase, these were the only two members of the military who had not received the Medal of Honor. Officials said this week that administrative errors had apparently prevented them from being among this group of first recipients of the then-new Medal of Honor after the Great Locomotive Chase of 1862.

They and some others had been recruited for a daring mission to hijack the Confederate train engine, the General, north of Atlanta and to try and burn bridges and destroy other logistical infrastructure important to the Confederates on April 12, 1862, during the Civil War.

Although they did not achieve their full objective as they moved north toward Chattanooga while being pursued by General conductor W.A. Fuller, who had climbed aboard another Confederate engine, the Texas, to try and catch back up with them, they were considered heroes. This was hailed as a daring mission, and it sparked some positive spirit into the Union military and supporters early in the war.

The raiders ran and escaped after running out of fuel in North Georgia below Chattanooga and scattered and hid, including on Williams Island near Baylor School. They were later captured and many were executed by hanging. Civilian leader James Andrews was hanged on June 7, 1862, while the other seven buried there suffered the same fate on June 18. Others of the approximately 20 total involved later escaped from prison or were exchanged for Confederate prisoners.

Pvt. Shadrach, who had been born in Pennsylvania but later joined an Ohio regiment, was only 21 years old, while Pvt. Wilson was a shoemaker from Ohio who was in his early 30s. He left behind a wife and child.

As President Biden said of them during Wednesday’s ceremony, “Their heroic deeds went unacknowledged for over a century. But time did not erase their valor.”

Their graves had been relocated to the cemetery shortly after the Civil War ended.

Although I have visited the Andrews’ Raiders monument and written about it before, I decided to go back Thursday morning. I was the only one there, although a car came up and two women got out and walked in the direction of the statue as I was leaving.

The marker, as many know, is just a few yards into the grass after one turns into the cemetery off Holtzclaw Avenue and takes a quick right. As I walked up to it, I noticed that the sky had a nice blue tint amid the red brick circle around the monument and graves to create an appropriately colored setting for July 4.

The four Medal of Honor recipients had special graves denoting their awards, while the other four had regular Civil War-era markers. Also, the four honorees had special, blue-colored Medal of Honor flags by their gravestones, while the other four just had small American flags.

Of course, the graves of Privates Shadrach and Wilson will probably soon be changed, and they will have different flags by their graves in the future. And the two other non-Medal recipients buried there – civilians James Andrews and William Campbell – will likely be the only ones to retain the vintage markers. Mr. Campbell’s says he was a member of the 2nd Ohio Infantry Regiment, although historical stories say he was evidently visiting with them when he was recruited as a civilian.

So, that is a little bit of a typo, because Mr. Andrews’ marker just says “civilian” on it. The fact that two civilians are buried individually in the National Cemetery is also unusual.

And Pvt. Shadrach’s grave marker is spelled “Shadrack,” even though the White House official press release and historical information found online spells it Shadrach. The General monument also spells his name Shadrack.

What will happen to their two current markers is also an interesting question to me, although I am not sure of what the proper military protocol is for disposing of a replaced marker. I personally hope they can be preserved for historical reasons.

The other four previous Medal of Honor recipients buried in the semi-circle are Marion A. Ross, John M. Scott, Samuel Robertson, and Samuel Slavens.

All eight markers have coins on them representing varying forms of tribute or respect depending on the coin.

I also checked more closely the monument, which has its own form of visual and architectural richness. It is quite eye-catching primarily because it has a bronze replica of the General and a fuel car on top and likely draws as much attention from a 6-year-old as an 80-year-old veteran.

It sits on marble that had come from Vermont and has some interesting carving work that is much more inconspicuous than the train model. One carving has some sabres and a canteen, while another shows a hat and a bag, or haversack, both of which should catch a child’s attention.

But the event of 1862 was anything but child’s play, and perhaps showed the horror of war in what happened to the soldiers after they were captured.

On each of three sides of the monument are the names of those who were executed, escaped, or exchanged. Among those listed as being exchanged was young Jacob Parrott, the first actual Medal of Honor recipient. He lived until 1908 and is buried in Ohio.

The statue was dedicated during a big celebration event on May 30, 1891 – although it said it was erected in 1890. Some 6,000 people gathered for the unveiling, more than three times the number of people who had attended another big event in the city’s history just three months earlier – the dedication and opening of the Walnut Street Bridge.

Former Ohio Gov. Joseph B. Foraker – who had fought in the Battle of Missionary Ridge – gave the dedicatory address. Also on hand was former Confederate conductor Fuller, who was gladly received, and descendants of some of those Union soldiers who took part, although no mention was apparently made of relatives of Privates Shadrach and Wilson being there.

It was an overall happy event amid the usually somber grounds.

The refurbished General was also brought to Chattanooga for the event, although that was evidently not heavily publicized beforehand.

One fact I could not uncover was what person or persons designed the marker. It was given by the state of Ohio, and a special commission was involved in its design and construction, so the records are likely somewhere within a government building or library in the Buckeye State, if not online.

While the setting around the marker and the eight graves, including the now-more-conspicuous ones of Privates Shadrach and Wilson, has been little changed for more than 130 years, other than the addition of more graves in the periphery, the country has changed.

We have fought wars in foreign lands as well as more verbal ones periodically on home soil, including the culture wars of the last decade or so that make many fear that we are becoming more divided once again.

And the views over the Civil War among Chattanoogans passing by the cemetery have also changed. While many in the initial decades after 1862 and 1891 felt at least a regional connection to the South and against the side the Andrews’ Raiders were on, the echoes of the horrors of slavery have made the vast majority of the more modern generations of Chattanoogans grateful for which side won.

These Union raiders took quite a risk, and their reward was not just an elusive medal that has much significance, but also the preservation of that great American ideal that all in this land want – freedom. Whether in North Georgia or Normandy, many have risked their lives so that Americans can remain free, and the country can continue to strive toward wholeness amid its disagreements.

As Lee Greenwood so heartily belted out in his hit song, “I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free.”

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