One of the most daring events of the Civil War took place in northern Georgia in April 1862. For their part in the affair, nineteen members of the Ohio volunteer infantry were awarded the nation's first Medals of Honor by Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. Unfortunately, two men, George D. Wilson, and Phillip G. Shadrach, were left out of the wards. Now, 146 years later, Congress has passed legislation to award them the highest military honor.
Major General D.C. Buell, in command of the Department of Tennessee, had employed a sometimes spy and contraband runner named James J. Andrews from Kentucky. Andrews conceived a plan to execute Buell's desire to disrupt communications and transportation between Chattanooga and Atlanta.
With twenty-two handpicked men from the Ohio Infantry dressed as civilians, Andrews walked from a rendezvous point near Chattanooga to Marietta, Georgia. They reached Marietta at about midnight on April 11, 1862. At that Marietta, they boarded a train for a station called Big Shanty not far from the Great Kennesaw Mountain.
While the engineer, conductor, and other passengers were eating breakfast, Andrews and his men uncoupled the locomotive called The General, its coal tender and three box cars from the rest of the train, all without arousing the suspicion of the soldiers at nearby Camp McDonald. Sixteen raiders secreted themselves in the boxcars. Andrews and Privates Wilson Brown and William Knight, both locomotive engineers, entered the cabin. Another soldier acted as fireman. The legitimate crew of The General looked up from their breakfast to the sight of the train teaming out of Big Shanty without them.
The raiders cut telegraph lines, removed rails, and burned bridges. According to the railroad schedule which Andrews had with him, they should have met only one other train, but for some reason they met three. The raiders told inquirers where they were compelled to stop that they were conveying powder to Beauregard's army. The first train that came to a broken spot had its engine reversed and became a pursuer of the raiders. About an hour was lost in waiting to allow these trains to pass, which enabled their pursuers to press closely upon them. Despite their best efforts, the time lost could not be regained. After having run about one hundred miles, they found their supply of wood, water, and oil exhausted, while the rebel locomotive which had been chasing them was in sight. Under these circumstances, they had no alternative but to abandon their cars and flee into the woods on Chickamauga Creek, some15 miles from Chattanooga.
Thousands of Confederate soldiers scoured the country in all directions and eventually captured Andrews and his companions.
The report of the Judge Advocate General about this incident to the Secretary of War included the following:
The twenty-two captives, when secured, were thrust into the negro jail of Chattanooga. They occupied a single room, half under ground, and but thirteen feet square, so that there was not space enough for them all to lie down together, and a part of them were, in consequence, obliged to sleep sitting and leaning against the walls. The only entrance was through a trap-door in the ceiling, that was raised twice a day to let down their scanty meals, which were lowered in a bucket.
They had no other light or ventilation than that which came through two small, triple-grated windows. They were covered with swarming vermin, and the heat was so oppressive that they were often obliged to strip themselves entirely of their clothes to bear it. Add to this, they were all handcuffed, and, with trace chains secured by padlocks around their necks, were fastened to each other in companies of twos and threes. Their food, which was doled out to them twice a day, consisted of a little flour, wet with water and baked in the form of bread, and spoiled pickled beef. They had no opportunity of procuring any supplies from the outside, nor had they any means of doing so; their pockets having been rifled of their last cent by the Confederate authorities, prominent among whom was an officer wearing the rebel uniform of a major. No part of the money thus basely taken was ever returned.
While the group was imprisoned at Chattanooga, Anderws was tried as a spy, convicted, and hanged at Atlanta on June 7, 1862. Following his execution, twelve others were transferred from Chattanooga to Knoxville, where seven of them were put on trial for spying. All seven were convicted and sentenced to death.
The Judge Advocate General's Report continued:
Among those who thus perished was Private Geo. D. Wilson, Company C, 21st Ohio Volunteers. He was a mechanic from Cincinnati, who, in the exercise of his trade, had travelled much through the States North and South, and who had a greatness of soul which sympathized intensely with our struggle for national life, and was in that dark hour filled with joyous convictions of our final triumph. Though surrounded by a scowling crowd, impatient for his sacrifice, he did not hesitate, while standing under the gallows, to make them a brief address. He told them that, though they were all wrong, he had no hostile feelings toward the Southern people, believing that not they but their leaders were responsible for the Rebellion; that he was no spy, as charged, but a soldier regularly detailed for military duty; that he did not regret to die for his country, but only regretted the manner of his death; and he added, for their admonition, that they would yet see the time when the old Union would be restored, and when its flag would wave over them again. And with these words the brave man died. He, like his comrades, calmly met the ignominious doom of a felon—but, happily, ignominious for him and for them only so far as the martyrdom of the patriot and the hero can be degraded by the hands of ruffians and traitors.
The fourteen remaining raiders were taken to Atlanta where they were confined. In October, 1862, all fourteen escaped from prison. Six made it back to Federal lines, six were recaptured, and the fate of two others has remained unknown.
On March 25, 1863, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton presented the very first Medals of Honor to the six remaining Ohio infantrymen, and gave them brevet commissions as lieutenants. Eventually all the raiders would be awarded the Medal of honor, save four: James Andrews, who was not eligible as a civilian, another civilian, and George Davenport Wilson and Phillip Gephart Shadrach.
It's not clear why Wilson and Shadrach were left out of the award of the Medal of Honor. Some reports say that Shadrach was disqualified because he had enlisted under a false name.
George Davenport Wilson was the son of George and Elizabeth Clark Wilson of Belmonmt County, Ohio. According to one source, he was married once, but divorced in 1861, before enlisting. He had a daughter and a son.
Phillip Gephart Shadrach (if that was his name) is listed on the military rolls as Charles Perry Shadrach. A source says he was the son of Robert and Elizabeth Shadrack of Somerset County, Pennsylvania. Information about him is difficult to come by and even more difficult to verify.
Congress on January 28, 2008 authorized the award of the Medal of Honor to these two heroic soldiers.