The First Medals of Honor
At Risk of Life Beyond Call of Duty
“There is a certain enthusiasm in liberty, that makes human nature rise above itself, in acts of bravery and heroism.” –Alexander Hamilton (1775)
This year will mark more than 1,000 weeks that The Patriot Post has been publishing online – longer than any other journal of news, policy and opinion on the Web. For me personally, that means I am approaching my 1,000th essay on Liberty and the evolving threats impeding its extension to the next generation.
Occasionally, the weekday my work is published coincides with a national day of recognition, which allows a pause from the tedious task of analyzing and illuminating the constant assault by “enemies, foreign and domestic” upon our Constitution, which, like many of our Patriot readers, I have sworn “to Support and Defend.” On those days I focus on some of the many things that make our Republic the greatest example of “endowed freedom” in the history of mankind.
Today, March 25th, is National Medal of Honor Day. As such, it provides an opportunity to step back and recognize generations of fellow Patriots whose service to our nation has been distinguished through extraordinary heroism and sacrifice.
It was on this date in 1863 that the first Medals of Honor, our nation’s highest military award, were conferred upon a small group of worthy recipients – the men known as “Andrews’ Raiders.” Their valorous acts were immortalized in print and film as “The Great Locomotive Chase.”
There has been a succession of military medals for meritorious service, beginning with George Washington’s Badge of Military Merit in 1782, which was scarcely awarded but familiar because it features a purple heart. Washington’s award was revived as the Purple Heart, including his likeness on the obverse and “For Military Merit” on the reverse. Some 2,450,000 Purple Hearts have been awarded for those wounded or killed in action on or after April 5, 1917.
Side Bar: I must note that this sobering total includes three medals dubiously claimed by John Kerry for injuries that would hardly merit a Band-Aid. Here is how Purple Hearts are really earned – but I digress.
In 1847, a Certificate of Merit was established to recognize meritorious service by veterans of the Mexican-American War, but at the onset of the War Between the States there was no official medal for merit or valor. That conflict would prove to be the bloodiest in U.S. history, with an estimated 625,000 deaths as compared to 405,000 deaths in our second most lethal conflict, World War II.
There are varied opinions about Abraham Lincoln’s legacy as the “Great Emancipator” and the errant assertion that his motive in war was anything other than “preserving the union,” but there is no question that there were many combatants on both sides of the War Between the States, common men, whose valor was unquestionable.
In 1861, Lincoln signed authorization for the Union’s Navy Medal of Valor, followed in 1862 by the Union Army version. That same year, the Confederate States established its Roll of Honor and Southern Cross of Honor, but the CSA award was conferred much more broadly than the Union medal. Unfortunately, by the end of the war, many Union Medals of Honor were distributed to those who did not merit the award, some simply for re-enlisting, as was the case with the 27th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment. In fact, 29 members of Lincoln’s funeral detail received Medals of Honor. (All of Medals of Honor would later be reviewed, and those not merited by extraordinary valor, would be rescinded.)
However, the first Medals of Honor awarded in 1863 for actions in 1862, certainly reflected bravery and valor, and the actions in question took place just south of my hometown of Chattanooga, Tennessee.
In 1862, Chattanooga was, as it is today, “The Gateway to the Deep South.” At that time, it was a pivotal rail and river supply center, and disabling Chattanooga as such was a major strategic objective for Lincoln’s forces.
In April of 1862, prior to the Chattanooga Campaign of November 1863 when Union Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant defeated Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg, civilian scout James Andrews and his Union Raiders undertook a daring mission to disable the critical rail lines between Chattanooga and Atlanta. The mission’s 22 enlisted Union volunteers knew undertaking a military action in civilian clothes meant that, if they were caught, they would be subject to hanging as spies.
On April 12, 1862, Andrews, a civilian, and his Raiders commandeered a locomotive, “The General,” in Big Shanty (now Kennesaw), Georgia, and drove it north toward Chattanooga. Their objective was to do significant damage to the vital Western and Atlantic Railroad line from Atlanta to Chattanooga – tearing up rails, burning bridges and severing telegraph lines.
Once their ruse was discovered, they were hotly and doggedly pursued by the train’s engineer, Jeff Cain, and two of his crew, Anthony Murphy and William Fuller.
Just south of Chattanooga, The General ran out of fuel and Andrews’ Raiders abandoned the train and headed for the hills. But, within two weeks, all of the Raiders were captured and held in the Swims Jail in Chattanooga, where they were charged with “acts of unlawful belligerency,” while the civilians, including Andrews, were charged as spies. They were all tried and convicted in military courts. Andrews was executed on June 7, 1862 in Atlanta. Seven additional Raiders were also hanged there.
After the War, the bodies of six Raiders, along with Andrews and his civilian guide, William Campbell, were exhumed and reburied near the entrance to Chattanooga’s National Cemetery, and a prominent monument was erected at the cemetery entrance in their honor.
Ultimately, 19 of the 24 Raiders were awarded the Medal of Honor, though Andrews and his civilian scout were not eligible as civilians.
As noted previously, by the end of the War Between the States, there were no clear standards for Union awards, and there was much confusion over the style of the Medal of Honor, which appeared very similar to the Grand Army of the Republic veteran medals.
One of my ancestors, Gen. George Lewis Gillespie from Kingsport, Tennessee, would set about to rectify that confusion.
Gillespie, who graduated second in his West Point Class of 1862 and fought for the Union, received the Medal of Honor at the Battle of Cold Harbor, Virginia, for carrying dispatches through enemy lines to Major General Philip Sheridan, at great personal risk. As was the case with several of our kinfolk in East Tennessee, brothers fought brothers over divided loyalties. Gen. Gillespie’s brother, John, fought with the 43rd Tennessee Infantry in 1863.
In 1904, Gillespie redesigned the United States Army’s version of the Medal of Honor so that it would be distinguished from the Union veteran GAR Medals. That design is now the current Army Medal of Honor.
(Sidebar: We are both descended from Revolutionary War militiaman Col. George Gillespie, one of the famous “Overmountain Men” who fought the British in the pivotal Kings Mountain battle, went on to serve with Gen. Francis Marion (the Swamp Fox) and finally George Washington at Yorktown, until Cornwallis surrendered in October of 1781.)
In 1917 the Army Medal of Honor Review Board rescinded 911 medals from the rolls – those Medals not merited by extraordinary valor. An act of Congress on July 9, 1918 established revised standards for the Medal of Honor, noting that a recipient must “distinguish himself conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty,” and that the act of valor be performed “in action involving actual conflict with an enemy.” That is the rigorous standard for all subsequent Medal of Honor awards.
Of course, the Medals for Andrews’ Raiders met that standard.
Since 1989, the history of Andrews’ Raiders and related artifacts have been preserved by the National Medal of Honor Heritage Center, and construction of its new facility on Chattanooga’s revitalized Tennessee River waterfront to house that collection, is now underway. The National Center location will provide access to hundreds of thousands of visitors, who can learn about the first 19 Medals of Honor and the recipients of the 3,474 Medals earned and awarded since.
Notably, fewer than 75 recipients of the Medal of Honor, American Patriots who have demonstrated “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty,” are living today. That list includes my friend and Chattanooga native Charles H. Coolidge.
Among other regional recipients now deceased are World War I recipient Alvin York, whose life story was immortalized in the film “Sergeant York.” And my old neighbor, Desmond Doss, whose heroic actions were featured in the recent movie, “Hacksaw Ridge.”
Of the many Medal of Honor recipients I have known, not one of these humble men would ever self-identify as a hero. However, all were quick to note they were in the company of heroes during those actions for which they were decorated. They represent the best of our countrymen, the true spirit of love for others above self – the finest order of Patriots.
At the onset of the American Revolution, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Honor, justice, and humanity, forbid us tamely to surrender that freedom which we received from our gallant ancestors, and which our innocent posterity have a right to receive from us. We cannot endure the infamy and guilt of resigning succeeding generations to that wretchedness which inevitably awaits them if we basely entail hereditary bondage on them.”
I invite you to honor these gallant men and all those who endeavor to defend Liberty for the next generation.
Finally, I have the humble privilege of serving on the National Advisory Board for the National Medal of Honor Heritage Center in Chattanooga, TN. This historic center honors the First Medals which were awarded for actions there during the War Between the States, and promotes the character trait pillars demonstrated by those who have received it in the years since.
For more information on the new Heritage Center, please contact the Patriot Foundation Trust Administrator. You can make a designated gift online or make a check payable to Patriot Foundation Trust (noting MoHHC on the memo line) and mail to Patriot Foundation Trust, PO Box 507, Chattanooga, TN 37401-0507.
Footnote 1: Regarding Chattanooga’s Medals of Honor: The only woman to receive a Medal of Honor is Dr. Mary Walker, who, as the Army’s first female surgeon, served with valor in both the Chickamauga and Chattanooga campaigns. Chattanooga, incidentally, is also home of the Chickamauga and Chattooga National Military Park, the nation’s first and largest Military Park.
Footnote 2: Because the Medal of Honor is presented “in the name of Congress,” it is often erroneously referred to as the “Congressional” Medal of Honor. However, it should be noted by its official name, the “Medal of Honor.” The MoH is earned, never “won,” so, as with other medals for valor, its recipients should not be referred to as “winners.” To read more about the Valor medals, click here. For the record, the Sons of Confederate Veterans did establish a Medal of Honor subject to very stringent nomination requirements, and there are only 51 recipients of that award.
Pro Deo et Constitutione – Libertas aut Mors
Semper Vigilans Fortis Paratus et Fidelis