Biden to award Medal of Honor to Union soldiers in ‘one of the earliest special operations’ in Army history

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President Biden will on Wednesday posthumously award the Medal of Honor to two Union soldiers who pirated a locomotive deep in Confederate territory during the Civil War and then drove it 87 miles north, destroying railroad tracks and telegraph lines along the way. 

Private Philip G. Shadrach and Private George D. Wilson will receive the honor for their gallantry and intrepidity while participating in a covert military operation 200 miles behind Confederate lines on April 12, 1862, which became known as the Great Locomotive Chase. 

In what was one of the earliest special operations in U.S. Army history, Union soldiers dressed as civilians infiltrated the Confederacy and hijacked the General Locomotive in Georgia before proceeding north.


The goal of the operation was to destroy the Western and Atlantic Railroad between Atlanta and Chattanooga, Tennessee, and help bring about the end of the Civil War. They were pursued by Confederate forces on foot, and then later on by a succession of locomotives, including The Texas.

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Although the raiders caused a lot of damage, they were unable to burn bridges or damage Tunnel Hill and the train stopped 18 miles from Chattanooga after the wood they had hoped to burn was soaked by rain resulting in the locomotive running out of fuel. 

The plan for the Great Locomotive Chase was hatched by James J. Andrews – a Kentucky-born civilian spy and scout. Andrews and 23 other men, including Shadrach and Wilson, later became known as the Andrews’ Raiders and infiltrated the South in small groups, rendezvousing north of Atlanta at Marietta, Georgia.  

Six of the Union participants became the Army’s first recipients of the newly created Medal of Honor. It is unknown why Private Shadrach and Private Wilson were not originally recommended for the award. The Medal of Honor is awarded to members of the Armed Forces who have distinguished themselves by acts of valor, and it has been awarded to more than 3,500 people. 

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According to the White House, both were deserving in 1863 and will be posthumously awarded later today. The first Medal of Honor ever bestowed went to Pvt. Jacob Parrott, who participated in the locomotive hijacking and was beaten while imprisoned by the Confederacy.

Shadrach, a native Pennsylvanian and Union Army Soldier, and Wilson, a soldier from Belmont County, Ohio, were eventually captured by Confederates and executed by hanging. Biden is recognizing their courage 162 years later with the country’s highest military decoration.

Shadrach, who was left orphaned at an early age, was 21 years old when he volunteered for the dangerous mission. He left home in 1861 and enlisted in the Ohio Infantry’s 2nd Regiment.

Wilson was originally a tradesman who supported his family as a journeyman shoemaker. He enlisted in an Ohio-based volunteer infantry in 1861.

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Both The General and The Texas survived the war and have been preserved in museums. The General is located at the Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History, in Kennesaw, Georgia, while The Texas is at the Atlanta History Center.

The Walt Disney Corp. made a 1956 movie about the hijacking titled “The Great Locomotive Chase,” starring Fess Parker and Jeffrey Hunter. The 1926 silent film “The General,” starring Buster Keaton, was also based on the historic event.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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