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Biden Awards Medal of Honor to 2 Union Soldiers

The plan was bold, but ultimately doomed.

In the spring of 1862, a small group of Union Army saboteurs came up with a daring idea to cut off Confederate supply lines near Chattanooga by stealing a train, tearing up railroad tracks, burning bridges and cutting down telegraph wires — which would have denied means of travel and communication to enemy forces in the area.

Dressed in plain clothes, they launched their mission in April, sneaking behind enemy lines in Georgia, taking over a locomotive near Marietta and wreaking havoc for seven hours along miles of railway in an effort to help take the battle deep into Tennessee.

But the stolen train, called “the General,” ran out of fuel 18 miles from Chattanooga, according to a U.S. Army account of the heist, which became known as the Great Locomotive Chase. The Union soldiers and civilians who took part in the mission fled, but all were captured after less than two weeks on the run.

Most were sent to prisoner of war camps. The rest were hanged as spies.

In 1863, six survivors of the raid were the first American soldiers awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest decoration for valor in combat, which had been authorized by President Abraham Lincoln the year before.

In all, 19 of the men received the Medal of Honor in the years that followed. But two soldiers who were executed by Confederates soon after the mission were never recognized.

Those two men, Pvt. Philip G. Shadrach and Pvt. George D. Wilson of the 2nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry, finally received the honor posthumously on Wednesday afternoon, 162 years after their service was cut short by a hangman’s noose in Atlanta.

In a ceremony at the White House, President Biden bestowed the medals to their family members, some of whom were unaware of their ancestors’ actions until contacted by historians.

“I only found out about this man four years ago — his history has been lost to us until now, so it’s pretty amazing to find out what he and the other 21 men did,” Scott Chandler, the great-great-grandson of Private Wilson, said to reporters on Tuesday. “We cannot take credit for his actions, but we can honor him and be his voice moving forward.”

In his remarks before presenting the medals, Mr. Biden tied the sacrifices of Privates Shadrach and Wilson to the ideals of the nation’s founding and sounded notes familiar from his speeches on the campaign trail.

“Their heroic deeds went unacknowledged for over a century, but time did not erase their valor,” Mr. Biden said. “And what they fought for was just as precious as it is today: unity over disunity, freedom over subjugation, progress over retreat, truth over lies.”

“Tomorrow is the Fourth of July, another reminder of why it is so important to know our history, not to erase our history,” Mr. Biden said. “To remember the sacred cause of American democracy and not make up a lost cause to justify the evil of slavery. To remember the nation that George and Philip fought for and died for: the United States of America.”

“That’s who we are,” he added.

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