Navy SEAL Michael Monsoor was awarded the Medal of Honor for actions in Iraq in 2006. He is one of seven Navy SEAL Medal of Honor recipients in history. Wikimedia Commons photo.
The United States Congress established the Medal of Honor during the early months of the American Civil War. The award’s first recipients were a group of six Union Army soldiers who earned it for carrying out a daring mission to sabotage a strategic Confederate rail line deep in enemy territory.
As the story goes, the so-called “Great Locomotive Chase” began on April 12, 1862, when a detachment of Union Army soldiers disguised in plain clothes boarded a passenger locomotive in Marietta, Georgia. Accompanied by a pair of civilian spies, including their leader, James Andrews, the men settled themselves at the rear of the train as it moved out of the station and headed north toward Tennessee.
All 20 members of the detachment who boarded the train (there were four others who didn't make it) were volunteers. Their mission was to destroy as many bridges as possible along the Western and Atlantic Railroad — a vital Confederate supply line connecting Atlanta with Chattanooga.
Union spy James Andrews and his handpicked team of saboteurs race toward Chattanooga aboard the stolen engine The General in modern artist Bradley Schmehl’s painting of the Great Locomotive Chase. Photo courtesy of artist Bradley Schmehl (www.bradleyschmehl.com).
Shortly after leaving Marietta, the train, called The General, eased to a stop in the town of Big Shanty. Around dawn, the conductor and most of his crew and passengers disembarked and headed to a nearby hotel for breakfast. Meanwhile, Andrews and his men, having exited on the opposite side of the train, disconnected the cab from the passenger cars and drove it out of the station.
The saboteurs made periodic stops as they chugged along toward Chattanooga, using tools they had stolen from some railroad repairmen to tear up rail lines, cut telegraph wires, and litter the tracks with railroad ties to obstruct the rebel troops pursuing them. Yet they didn’t manage to burn any bridges, as the task proved too time consuming to carry out without risking capture.
The General finally ran out of steam just south of Chattanooga. At that point, Andrews and his men abandoned the train and made a run for it. They were captured by Confederate soldiers several days later and sent before a judge on charges of “unlawful belligerency.”
All the men were convicted. Eight of them, including Andrews, were executed by hanging. The rest either managed to escape or became prisoners of war.
Tech Sgt. John Chapman was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions while serving as an Air Force Combat Controller in Afghanistan on March 4, 2002. Wikimedia Commons photo.
On March 25, 1863, six members of the detachment who had managed to make it back to the North appeared in Washington, DC, to become the first-ever recipients of the Medal of Honor. Years later, 13 of their comrades were also awarded the medal, bringing the total number of “Andrew’s Raiders” to earn the nation’s highest military honor to 19.
Since then, the number of Medal of Honor recipients has grown into the thousands, and yet the award retains its prestige. It is the US military’s highest decoration — intended to recognize “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty” — and the only one that must be personally approved by the president. In fact, living recipients are usually first notified that they will receive the reward in a phone call from the Commander in Chief himself.
In 1990, the United States Congress officially designated March 25 as National Medal of Honor Day. The federal holiday commemorates the “heroism and sacrifice of Medal of Honor recipients.” Congress chose March 25 because it marks the anniversary of the first medals being awarded.
A painting of US Coast Guard personnel evacuating US Marines from near Point Cruz on Guadalcanal under fire during the Second Battle of the Matanikau on Sept. 27, 1942. Douglas Munro is the only US coast guardsman to be awarded the Medal of Honor. Wikimedia Commons photo.
To date, according to the National Medal of Honor Museum database, approximately 3,516 individuals have earned the medal. 19 have earned it twice. The pantheon of recipients includes members of every US military branch except for Space Force.
The US Army, Navy, and Marine Corps account for the majority of Medal of Honor recipients. The Army boasts more than 2,400; the Navy, 749; and the Marines, 300. Nineteen airmen have received the award since the US Air Force became its own branch in 1947. The Coast Guard, which doesn’t typically participate in combat operations, has produced just one recipient: Signalman 1st Class Douglas Munro, who was awarded the Medal of Honor for actions during World War II.
Medal of Honor recipients Navy SEAL Michael Thornton and Navy SEAL Tommy Norris at the American Academy of Achievement's 2001 Banquet of the Golden Plate ceremonies in San Antonio, Texas. Photo courtesy of the Academy of Achievement.
William "Willie" Johnston is the youngest Medal of Honor recipient in US military history. Wikimedia Commons photo.
The youngest person to earn the Medal of Honor was an 11-year-old drummer boy named William “Willie” Johnston. In 1861, Johnston’s father enlisted in the US Army in Vermont. Johnston followed suit and was assigned to D Company of the 3rd Vermont Volunteer Infantry Regiment.
Johnston was issued a uniform and a drum. During the Civil War, drummers, who were typically adolescent boys, provided “drum calls” to signal actional commands. The loud beats of the drum were easier to hear over the sound of cannon and gunfire than the shouts of a commanding officer.
Johnston accompanied his unit to Virginia. He participated in a series of skirmishes fought between June 25 and July 1, 1862, called the Seven Days Battles.
When the Union Army was forced to retreat following its failed attempt to capture Richmond, many of its musicians abandoned their instruments to make a faster escape. But not Willie. In fact, he was the only drummer in his division to return to friendly lines with his instrument.
Upon learning of Johnston’s story, President Abraham Lincoln was so impressed by the drummer boy’s courage that he recommended him for the Medal of Honor. In 1863, at age 13, Willie received the medal.
Mary Edwards Walker volunteered to treat Union soldiers wounded on the frontlines of Civil War battles. Photo courtesy of the National Archives.
In the 1850s, Mary Edwards Walker was one of just two practicing female physicians in the entire United States. When the Civil War began, she volunteered to put her medical skills to work for the Union Army and was contracted as a field surgeon. She would be the only woman to serve in that role during the war, while as many as 10,000 women served as nurses.
In 1863, Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas appointed Walker as the assistant surgeon for the 52nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry and she joined the unit in Tennessee. While traveling to Georgia, she was captured by Confederate soldiers and accused of being a spy. She spent four months as a prisoner of war before being released back to her unit.
Since she worked in contract positions during the war, she wasn’t officially a US military member. Still, Major Generals William Tecumseh Sherman and George Thomas deemed her contributions to the war effort worthy of the Medal of Honor and recommended her for the award. She received the medal in 1866.
Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.
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