The descendants of Wilson W. Brown this weekend will donate a 110-year-old Medal of Honor to the Southern Museum of Civil War & Locomotive History.
In April 1862, Brown was one of The Andrews’ Raiders, a group of Union soldiers who stole the locomotive “General” and fled toward Chattanooga, Tenn., tearing up track, cutting telegraph wires and destroying bridges with the goal of destroying Confederate supply lines. Brown was the Engineer of the General on the day of the Raid and was selected for the raid specifically because of his previous railroad engineering experience.
While the Andrews’ Raid — also known as the Great Locomotive Chase — failed to achieve its main objective, the participants were the first to receive the Medal of Honor for their participation in the heroic endeavor.
Following the Chase, Brown, along with the other Raiders, was captured and imprisoned by Confederate soldiers, but eventually succeeded in a daring escape and made it on foot back to the Union lines after six months imprisonment in harsh conditions. In November 1862, he was promoted to the rank of sergeant and later saw action at the Battle of Stones River in Middle Tennessee, at the Battle of Dug Gap near Dalton and at the Battle of Chickamauga, where he was severely wounded.
The donation will culminate the Museum’s Descendants’ Weekend expected to be attended by more than 150 relatives of the 22 men who participated in the Chase. The Medal will complement one given to fellow Raider Sgt. John M. Scott in 1863. Scott’s descendants donated a Medal to the Southern Museum in 2012 to coincide with the sesquicentennial of the Raid.
Interestingly, Al Ward, the great grandson of Brown, saw the General in 1963 in his hometown of Toledo, Ohio, as the locomotive made a trip through Ohio as part of the Raid’s centennial commemoration. The Southern Museum recently spoke with Ward about Brown and what it means to donate the Medal to the Museum; the following transcript of that conversation has been edited for length.
What does it mean to be related to Wilson Brown?
It significant to us that our forebear, Wilson W. Brown, was a volunteer in the Union Army and participated in the Raid without knowing at the time the details of what he was volunteering for. We think that’s significant. The family’s always been proud of that history. We do appreciate very much what he did for the country.
Why did the family decided to donate the Medal now?
It was the hope for many, many years … that we could do something along these general lines — to put it where the public could see it, appreciate it and perhaps other generations could become aware of some of the sacrifices that ordinary people made in extraordinary ways.
(After the older generation passed), we decided it was time after many years to place the medal in a museum where it could be preserved and where Wilson Brown’s story could be told and honored. So, that all led to the decision to find an appropriate place. We thought since the General was already housed in the Southern Museum that it would be fitting if the Medal earned by Great Grandfather Brown on April 12, 1862, could at last be placed within a stone’s throw of the locomotive itself.
What has the story as a whole meant to your family over the years?
I guess the story just signified what ordinary men can do when they are faced with extraordinary challenges. And, that’s not an original thought with me; that was a statement made by Admiral Bull Halsey in World War II when he was congratulated as being an extraordinary man. He said there are no extraordinary men; there are only ordinary men who by circumstances are called upon to do extraordinary things.
I’m sure that’s the way Grandpa Brown looked at it, and that’s the way the family looks at it. It was service above and beyond. A bunch of young guys, about 24 years old on average, went off 200 or so miles below enemy lines risking their lives for the sake of their country.
What do you hope people take away from seeing the Medal?
We hope that they get the idea by looking at the medal and reading his story that here’s a guy who without any special equipment and just ordinary in intelligence put it all on the line when he was called upon to do so. They did not succeed in the stated mission, but the daring and heroic nature of the event generated quite a time of enthusiasm or the raising the spirits among people supporting the Union.
This brought a bright light of hope to the North, and grandpa was a contributor to that. We just hope they would look at it as an important, interesting time of history, and that people from any and all walks of life can come to the fore and do what their country needs them to do when the circumstances dictate.
Visiting the Southern Museum and Kennesaw, where the Raid started, must have been quite an experience.
It put it all into three-dimensions. I could go up there into the cab and let my imagination take over and see myself pushing the throttle just like Great Grandpa Brown and sending the locomotive on up the rails and into history.