For more than a century and a half, our community has had the distinction of being the birthplace of the Medal of Honor. The story begins with the Great Locomotive Chase in 1862, when a group of Union spies, led by civilian James J. Andrews, stole the General locomotive while it was stopped in Big Shanty (present-day Kennesaw). Known as the Andrews Raiders, the group planned to travel north along the Western & Atlantic Railroad to Chattanooga and destroy the vital rail line along the way. But the raiders were chased by several railroad employees and were forced to abandon the effort north of Ringgold. The raiders were arrested, and several, including Andrews, were executed.
At the same time, the U.S. Army was looking into the possibility of creating a medal for heroic actions. Up until that point, such an honor was considered to be aristocratic, but the Civil War caused the War Department to reconsider. Officially created in the summer of 1862, the new award was based on the U.S. Navy’s Medal of Honor, created the previous year. After the War Department received the new Army medals from the Philadelphia Mint, it was up to the Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, to award them to a brave soldier.
In March 1863, six raiders who had been in a Confederate prison were exchanged and allowed to return to the North. On March 25, 1863, they met with Stanton at the War Department, where he presented them with the first Medals of Honor. The first award went to Jacob Parrott, followed by Elihu Mason, William Pittenger, William Reddick, Robert Buffum and William Bessinger. Next, the men went to meet with President Abraham Lincoln at the White House. The first posthumous Medal of Honor in history came several months later, when one was awarded to another raider, Marion Ross. Since that time, almost all of the 22 Andrews Raiders have been awarded the distinction.
Interestingly, our community’s connection to the Medal of Honor does not end there. During the Atlanta Campaign of 1864, Gen. William T. Sherman moved his troops south through Georgia, hoping to reach the heart of the Confederate rail network. As he made his way toward Atlanta, the armies reached Big Shanty. One of the Union troops, a native of Ireland named Thomas Timothy Fallon, had served in the Army since the start of the war. During earlier battles at Williamsburg and Fair Oaks, Virginia, he had fought heroically. On June 14-15, 1864, Fallon was part of the fighting in the Big Shanty area and helped charge the enemy earthworks. During the fighting, Fallon saw a Confederate officer, swung his musket at the man and dragged him back to Union lines. This act, along with his earlier action in Virginia, earned Fallon the Medal of Honor on Feb. 13, 1891.
Fallon’s medal has a unique story of its own. For unknown reasons, the U.S. Army kept his medal. In 1957, a college was creating an exhibit about a school alumnus and Medal of Honor recipient and requested a replica of the award. Instead, the Army sent Fallon’s medal. The mix-up was discovered in 2016, and his medal finally was given to his family in 2019.
As Sherman moved past Big Shanty, he encountered the Confederate soldiers at Kennesaw Mountain. It was there that Illinois musician Alason P. Webber was playing his fife to lead Union troops into battle. On June 27, 1864, Webber and his fellow soldiers attacked the Confederates at Cheatham Hill but could not reach the earthworks. The group’s leader, Lt. Col. Allen Fahnestock, let Webber borrow a Henry repeating rifle. Webber used it to keep the Confederates from firing long enough for wounded Union soldiers to leave the battlefield and return to safety. Webber’s story is told in the museum at Kennesaw Mountain, and it notes that he was asked by a fellow soldier if he was able to hit any of the enemy soldiers. He simply responded, “I aimed at someone every time I shot … it made me sick.” For helping to save his comrades’ lives, Webber was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1896.
As you can see, the Kennesaw area has an interesting connection to the Medal of Honor, as almost 20 were awarded for action in our area. Few places across the country can claim that distinction.
For more details about the Great Locomotive Chase, I suggest visiting the Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History, where the General resides. Additionally, “Stealing the General: The Great Locomotive Chase and the First Medal of Honor” by Russell S. Bonds is an excellent read.
– Andrew Bramlett is vice president of the Kennesaw Historical Society and an honorary member of the Kennesaw Cemetery Preservation Commission.
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