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  • Writer's pictureCathryn Stanley

Barnesville native took part in Civil War's Great Locomotive Chase

Updated: Jul 6

The Mitchel Raiders set a train car on fire in an attempt to set a covered railway bridge ablaze and thwart pursuit, from Deeds of Valor; how America's Heroes won the Medal of Honor, published in 1901. | public domain

Update: On Wednesday, July 3, 2024, President Joe Biden fixed the 161-year-old oversight by honoring Private Philip G. Shadrach and Private George D. Wilson posthumously. Wilson's great-great-granddaughter, Theresa Chandler accepted the Medal of Honor.

"Privates (Philip G.) Shadrach and (George D.) Wilson heroically served our nation during the Civil War, making the ultimate sacrifice of their lives to protect the Union, but because of a clerical error, they never received the Medal of Honor they each deserved," Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said in a statement.

The Great Locomotive Chase is well-known as one of the most daring adventures of the Civil War.  It is the subject of Hollywood movies and countless books, yet one of the participants, Barnesville's George Davenport Wilson, is still unheralded. He is one of eight tried and executed as spies by the Confederacy after the Great Locomotive Chase, also known as Andrews' Raid or the Mitchel Raid) on April 12, 1862, in northern Georgia. Over 160 years later, Wilson is still one of two Union soldiers who never received the Medal of Honor, first bestowed upon other soldiers who took part in the raid.

George Davenport Wilson

Described as "tall with a spare frame, high cheekbones with overhanging brows, thin brownish hair, long thin whiskers, and sharp gray eyes," George Davenport Wilson was born in 1830 in Barnesville to Elizabeth Clark and George Wilson. George was a journeyman shoemaker. He married Martha Marple Wilson on Sept. 6, 1849. They had two children, a son, David Davenport Wilson born, Nov. 12, 1855, who died in a railroad wreck in Ohio on August 1888., and a daughter who died in 1861. He and Martha divorced in 1861.

Wilson enlisted for three years as a private in Company B of the Second Ohio Infantry on August 31, 1861. He was one of 24 soldiers and civilians who volunteered for Andrews' Raid on April 7, 1862, joining 18 other Union soldiers who, disguised as civilians and led by civilian scout James J. Andrews, seized the locomotive General and three of its box cars at Big Shanty, near Marietta, Georgia. They planned to burn the Western and Atlantic Railroad's bridges as Union General Ormsby Macknight Mitchel attempted to capture Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Huntsville, Alabama. The raiders aimed to cross through the Federal siege lines on the outskirts of Chattanooga and rejoin Mitchel's army. Built by the state of Georgia and opened in 1850, the W & A played a critical role during the Civil War suppling the Confederates in Tennessee from the major railroad junction of Atlanta.

The Union soldiers cut telegraph wires, thwarting their pursuers and evading capture. The General’s conductor, William Allen Fuller, and the foreman of the railroad’s wood supply, Anthony Murphy, doggedly pursued the raiders for 87 miles on foot, with a handcar, aboard the locomotives Yonah and William R. Smith, and finally, in the locomotive Texas, while running the engine in reverse. Reinforced by armed Confederate recruits and track hands, they finally caught up with the General two miles north of Ringgold, Georgia. The raiders were captured within a few days and some were quickly executed as spies, including Andrews. Others fled, and the surviving raiders were the first to be awarded the newly created Medal of Honor by the US Congress.

Wilson was captured on April 12, 1862, and tried and court-martialed as a Union spy at Knoxville, Tenn. on May 31, 1862. According to historical documents, just before Wilson was put to death, he addressed the crowd saying he felt no hostility toward them and did not regret dying for his country because he knew the people would soon see the Union flag flying over them once again.

He was executed by hanging on June 18, 1862, at the corner of Fair Street (now Memorial Drive) and South Park Avenue in Atlanta). Like the others executed, Wilson was buried unceremoniously in an unmarked grave and later reburied in Chatanooga National Cemetery.

Eight of the prisoners escaped, traveling for hundreds of miles in pairs, and back to Union lines, including two who were aided by enslaved persons and Union sympathizers and two who floated down the Chattahoochee River until they were rescued by the Union blockade vessel USS Somerset in the Gulf of Mexico. The remaining six were held as prisoners of war and exchanged for Confederate prisoners on March 17, 1863.

On March 20, the recently released raiders arrived in Washington DC. The following day one of the raiders, William Pittenger wrote a letter to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton detailing their mission to Georgia. On March 24, they were interviewed by Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt, who corroborated the details of their mission with testimony from the raiders who had escaped in 1862. On March 25, they were invited to Stanton's office at the Department of War. After a brief conversation, Stanton announced that the raiders would receive the newly approved Medal of Honor. Private Jacob Parrott, who had been physically abused as a prisoner, was awarded the first. The others were Sergeant Elihu H. Mason, Corporals William Pittenger, William H. H. Reddick, Privates William Bensinger, Wilson Wright Brown, and Robert Buffum. Stanton also offered them all commissions as First Lieutenant. They were taken to the White House to meet President Abraham Lincoln, which became a tradition for all Medal of Honor recipients.

Later, other soldiers who had participated in the raid also received the Medal of Honor, with posthumous awards to families of those who had been executed. As civilians, Andrews and Campbell were not eligible. Wilson and Charles Perry Shadrack have yet to be awarded even though the House of Representatives passed a bill in 2008 retroactively awarding them the Medal of Honor.

Pittenger published his account of the chase in 1863, called “Daring and Suffering.” The book was popular and well-received by readers in the northern states. The book was reprinted in 1881 as “Capturing a Locomotive,” and in 1889 as “The Great Locomotive Chase,” giving the Andrews Raid its alternative title. Pittenger's account inspired two major movies - Buster Keaton's 1926 silent comedy film, The General, and Walt Disney’s 1956 The Great Locomotive Chase.

Trains used in the Great Locomotive Chase are displayed at two Georgia museums. The General can be found at the Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History in Kennesaw. The Texas is housed at the Atlanta History Center.

Will Henry Davenport Wilson ever be posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor?

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