They Stole a Confederate Train for the Union. Now, 2 Civil War Privates Will Receive the Medal of Honor.

Pvt. Philip Shadrach (left) and Pvt. George Wilson (right)
Pvt. Philip Shadrach (left) and Pvt. George Wilson (right). (Photos courtesy of the U.S. Army)

More than 160 years after they were captured and executed by Confederate rebels, two U.S. soldiers are set to be posthumously recognized for their valor during the Civil War with the Medal of Honor.

Pvts. Philip Shadrach and George Wilson will be recognized for their actions in 1862 when they, alongside 20 other Union soldiers and two civilians, infiltrated rebel territory and stole a train, taking it northward and destroying as much of the train tracks, bridges and other key logistical infrastructure as they could. It was a mobile raid over roughly 200 miles during the course of a week while they were constantly pursued by Confederates.

President Joe Biden is set to present the medals to the soldiers' descendants at the White House on Wednesday afternoon. Shadrach and Wilson's awards were approved by Congress in 2008, but the ceremony kept getting shifted and was eventually forgotten about.

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The raid is known as the Great Locomotive Chase, and was meant to cripple Confederate logistics and severely restrict where Southern troops could fight -- as trains were the key means of supplying the front lines. In particular, the mission was to obliterate train tracks, bridges and telegraph wires between Atlanta, Georgia, and Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Today, the Medal of Honor is the highest award for valor in the military. However, during the Civil War, it was the only award for valor, and members of the locomotive raid became its very first recipients.

    Union soldiers, including Shadrach and Wilson of the 2nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment, snuck behind enemy lines and captured a train called "The General" in Atlanta when its crew stopped for lunch, and were quickly pursued by William Fuller, the conductor of the captured train, by handcar. Fuller would eventually take control of another train to pursue the Union soldiers during their raid.

    Roughly 18 miles outside of Chattanooga, the Union soldiers abandoned their captured train. They were all captured within two weeks, including Shadrach and Wilson, and six were imprisoned for about a year and eventually freed in prisoner exchanges.

    Eight of them, including Shadrach and Wilson, were hanged in Atlanta.

    But a handful of others did manage to escape and, traveling hundreds of miles on foot, made it back to Union lines.

    The soldiers who returned were awarded the new-at-the-time Medal of Honor; 1st Lt. Jacob Parrott, who was severely tortured as a prisoner of war, became the very first recipient.

    They also were offered commissions to serve as officers by the Union Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. At least one, Parrott, took that commission offer.

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