Alexander's Column

The Medal of Honor — Courage and Sacrifice

Our Shared Patriot Legacy

Whether you have been an American citizen for 10 days or 10 generations.

Mark Alexander · Mar. 23, 2016

“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.” —Thomas Jefferson (1775)

National Medal of Honor Day marks the anniversary observance of the awarding of the first medals March 25, 1863.

The six worthy recipients of those first medals were members of “Andrews' Raiders,” whose valorous acts were immortalized in print and film as “The Great Locomotive Chase.”

That chase started in Big Shanty, Georgia, on April 12, 1862, and ended just south of Chattanooga, Tennessee, near The Patriot Post’s publishing offices.

Almost a year later, Private Jacob Parrott was the first Raider to receive his Medal from Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Since that day, there have been 3,497 recipients (including 19 double recipients), the most recent being Navy SEAL Team Six member Edward Byers. There are just 78 living recipients today.

The current Medal of Honor has its origins in two Revolutionary War awards — the Fidelity Medallion and the Badge of Military Merit. The extraordinary valor associated with those earliest awards, and all of those since, is reflected in six fundamental character traits: Courage, commitment, citizenship, sacrifice, integrity and patriotism.

In a column titled “On Presidential Character,” I wrote about the importance of understanding our history — including our common national history and your own family history.

In 1944, as World War II was turning in favor of the Allies, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who was steadfast in his historically informed understanding of how to prosecute tyranny, observed, “The longer you can look back, the farther you can look forward.”

His insight into the value of historical context is as timeless as history itself. With this in mind, I invite you to journey with me for a moment and to allow me to share a thread of my family history.

Recently, I’ve been researching some of our paternal family lines back to the Revolutionary War Patriots from whom we are directly descended. Our family was in Tennessee well before statehood, and the first of my father’s line arrived from Virginia in 1782, when Tennessee was considered a territory in the western part of North Carolina.

Among the Revolutionary War Patriots in that line, the one I find most fascinating is George Gillespie (1730-1794). Col. Gillespie, along with his brothers and sons, fought beside Col. John Sevier at Kings Mountain in October of 1780, and defeated Gen. Charles Cornwallis' henchman, the infamously brutal Major Patrick Ferguson.

As the Crown endeavored to ensure control of the breadbasket of its Colonies — Virginia, and North and South Carolina — Cornwallis sent Ferguson to the Western Carolinas to force pledges of Tory support from settlers, which he did with great prejudice. At the time, my ancestors occupied what was the western colonial frontier, and they were a fiercely independent breed whose courage and resolve was greatly underestimated by Cornwallis and Ferguson.

Responding to threats against those Patriots who refused to pledge their loyalty to the Crown, and threats against their families, my ancestors were not content to wait on Ferguson and his legions to arrive. They rose up and set out east across the mountains, intent on taking the battle to the British Loyalists.

The “Overmountain Men” found and engaged Ferguson on Kings Pinnacle. The Scotsman was noted for wearing a brightly colored red shirt, which made him a distinct target even at some distance. Early in the engagement, a militia ball took him out of his saddle, but his foot locked into the stirrup and his spooked horse dragged him into the Patriot lines, where he collected seven more rounds!

The Redcoats' defeat at Kings Mountain after the death of Ferguson was, arguably, a significant turning point in the Revolutionary War. Col. Gillespie would go on to volunteer with Gen. Francis “Swamp Fox” Marion, providing his own mount and arms. He then served with George Washington at Yorktown, where Cornwallis surrendered in 1781.

Col. Gillespie’s grandson, another Tennessean, Gen. George Lewis Gillespie Jr., graduated second in his U.S. Military Academy class of 1862. Two years later he would receive the Medal of Honor for running important dispatches through enemy lines in battle. As was the case with several of our East Tennessee kinfolk, brothers fought against brothers in the War Between the States. George’s brother, Col. John Gillespie, led the 43rd Tennessee Volunteer Regiment. Their mother provides our family lineage back to another famous Tennessean, Sam Houston.

Gen. Gillespie returned to West Point as a professor after the war and remained there until his death in 1913. He is interred at the USMA Post Cemetery. Of note, 10 years before his death, he patented a redesign of the Medal of Honor, which he turned over to the Department of Defense. That design is the model for the modern Medals of Honor today.

That, then, is a glimpse into the generations of American Patriots from whom we are descended. Like many of you, our family legacy includes those who have honored their sacred oaths “to Support and Defend” our Constitution at risk of blood and life. Our line extends to my grandfather who was an aviator in World War I, my father who served as a Naval Aviator in World War II, through me and now to my oldest son, who will graduate in June from the Air Force Academy and cross-commission into the Marine Corps.

But please hear me loud and clear…

Claim to the legacy of our family line of Patriots is not just mine or that of my children — it is our claim — it is the shared legacy of all American Patriots who stand in defense of Liberty today, whether you have been an American citizen for 10 days or are descended from 10 generations.

It is our shared legacy and our shared burden to extend Liberty to the next generation.

In the preamble to our Constitution, George Washington and the delegates to the Constitutional Convention (September 17, 1787) wrote, “We the People of the United States, in Order to … secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

“Secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”

This is our duty.

Foremost among those Patriots who have fought to secure those blessings are those who have received the Medal of Honor for their sacrificial service to their fellow Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen. On March 25, the day set aside to recognize them, I ask that you take time to honor their sacrifice and contemplate the legacy that you yourself will leave for the next generation.

Finally, I encourage you to support the Medal of Honor Heritage Center, now in the process of establishing a permanent visitor center honoring the first recipients of the Medal of Honor, and all who have received it since. For more information on the new Medal of Honor Heritage Center, please contact the Patriot Foundation Trust Administrator or make a donation.

Pro Deo et Constitutione — Libertas aut Mors
Semper Vigilans Fortis Paratus et Fidelis

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