William Pittenger, Medal of Honor Recipient

Originally Published In Village News August 13, 1998

Contributed by the Fallbrook Historical Society

Don Rivers, President

William Pittenger, an early Fallbrook resident, was one of the first Medal of Honor recipients.

The following comes to us from "Above and Beyond" a book written by the editors of Boston Publishing Company of Boston, Massachusetts entitled The Great Locomotive Chase.

After the creation of the Medal of Honor, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton decided to bestow the first medals upon an intrepid group of behind-the-lines raiders. The recipients were young Northerners who like thousands of others, had volunteered for dangerous duty to preserve the Union their countrymen were seeking to dissolve.

There is a certain perverse irony that dominates the history of the Civil War, and it extends to the Medal of Honor as well. The first soldiers to receive the commendation won their laurels for brave deeds done while they were out of uniform. Stranger still, in the aftermath of their heroics they denied responsibility for their acts and actually apologized to the Confederacy for any harm done.

Their story originates with an enigmatic civilian, James J. Andrews, a sometime Union spy who was, ironically, a native of Virginia. The 32-year old Andrew apparently made several forays into the South posing as a dealer in "contraband," selling medicine and other scarce supplies and gathering some intelligence. Early in 1862 he took an assignment from Major General Don Carlos Buell, entering the enemy-held part of Tennessee with a load of quinine and returning, said Buell, "without information of any value." Nevertheless, Andrews was sent south once more, this time to burn the Western & Atlantic Railroad bridge over the Tennessee River at Bridgeport. This too, ended in failure.

Buell, meanwhile, had begun to move his army toward what would become the Battle of Shiloh. With the army commander on the move, Andrews reported his failure to Brigadier General Ormsby M. Mitchel in Shelbyville and then having failed to burn one bridge, proposed now a plan to burn several on the line from Atlanta to Chattanooga. This, he reasoned, would enable Mitchel to advance on the latter point without fear of the enemy sending in heavy reinforcements from Georgia.

Mitchel liked the scheme, and on April 7 he and Andrews went before three Ohio regiments in Shelbyville to ask for volunteers for what they described as "secret and very dangerous service." They would be operating behind enemy lines, Andrews told them, in civilian dress, and if taken they could well expect to be treated as spies with hanging almost certainty. Nevertheless, twenty-four men stepped forward, ready for whatever risks Andrews' scheme offered.

The men about to embark on the daring adventure were a mixed lot drawn from the 2nd, 21st, and 33rd Ohio Infantries. All were enlisted men excepting the 200 pound William Campbell, civilian who just happened to be visiting his friend Private Philip Shadrach. When Shadrach volunteered, so did Campell. Another volunteer, Corporal William Pittenger, was a bookish fellow with glasses, who had the temperament of a preacher-which he later became and hardly seemed to be made of the stuff of daring raiders.

Andrews told the men only so much of his plan as was necessary. They were to divide into groups of three and four and make their way separately through enemy lines to join him at Marietta, Georgia, on April 10. After delays caused by heavy rain and the loss of three

men along the way, Andrews gathered on April 11 in Marietta, Georgia with the remaining 21 raiders. They were to board a Confederate train, wrest control from its engineer and conductor, and steam northward to Chattanooga, burning bridges behind them. Having seen more soldiers along the line than he expected, and in the face of some suggestions that they should abandon the plan, Andrews gave each of the men a chance to back out. Their decision, to a man, echoed Andrews's own, to succeed or die."

Individually and in groups they bought tickets for various stations on the Western & Atlantic north of Marietta, and at 5:00 A.M. Andrews and 19 men boarded the cars. (The other two men apparently thought better of their brave resolve of the night before.) It was a seven-mile ride to the first stop at Big Shanty, where a twenty-minute breakfast halt was allowed.

Andrews and his men stayed on the train while the engineer, Jeff Cain, conductor William Fuller, and the rest of the passengers alighted for their breakfast. Then Andrews calmly saw to uncoupling the engine, tender and three boxcars form the rest of the train, told sixteen of the men to get into the rear car, and boarded the engine cab with Wilson Brown and William Knight, booth engineers, and another soldier who acted s fireman. It all took place under the disinterested eyes of soldiers lolling about their tents in Camp McDonald near the tracks. The first idea anyone had of something amiss came when Fuller and Cain heard the sound of their engine, General. Steaming out of the station without them. In an instant the Andrews raiders had achieved a feat of incredible daring. It was, also, to be the last success of their bold venture.

The first stop came a Kingston, some twenty miles of Big Shanty. Concerned about an immediate pursuit, Andrews had lifted rails from the track, dropped crossties on the rails, and cut telegraph lines until he reached the Etowah River, but from that point until Kingston he steamed on without interruption, assuming that the damage already done would discourage any train that might try to follow.

He did not account for the persistence of Fuller and Cain. At first they simply ran after their stolen train. A few miles up the track they found a handcar and board it muscled their way to the Etowah crossing. And there Fuller reaped enormous profit from Andrews's miscalculation. Steaming over the river, the raiders had passed a siding and saw the old engine, Yonab, sitting there with steam up. Instead of stopping to cripple the locomotive, they had continued on their way. Reaching the siding, Fuller found just what he needed. Quickly he abandoned the handcar, boarded the Yonab, and raced northward. Already the raiders were becoming the pursued.

The raiders lost a full hour at Kingston, sitting patiently on a siding while southbound trains passed by. Having cut the telegraph, Andrews had little fear of word of his raid getting ahead of him. Then, unwilling to wait longer the raiders moved back onto the main line and raced north, hoping not to meet further traffic along the way. Their luck stayed with them all the way to Calhoun, 19 miles north of Kingston. No southbound freights barred the road, and just to discourage any pursuers, Andrews lifted some rails four miles north of Kingston.

Everything seemed to be going well until the General stopped two miles above Calhoun to break the track once more. They were at their work, wrote Pittenger, when "not far behind we heard the scream of a locomotive bearing down upon us at lighting speed." It was the dogged Fuller. Forced to abandon the Yonab at Kingston because of all the freights in his way, he had commandeered the William R .Smith and steamed north, only to be halted by the break in the track. He ran on afoot three miles when luck served him yet again. Andrews had passed the engine Texas on a siding at Adairsville on his way to Calhoun, and Fuller encountered the Texas coming toward his. At once he commandeered and reversed the train, steamed to Adairsville, where he left its cars on a siding, and moving in reverse, raced off after the raiders. Soon he had them in sight.

It was to be known ever after as the Great Locomotive Chase. Their throttles open all the way, the two engines raced northward. The Andrews raiders dropped cross ties across the tracks behind them, hopping to stop or derail the Texas, but they could do nothing more than briefly delay Fuller. There we not time to halt the General to lift a rail or two, which would have stopped pursuit completely.

Through Resaca they steamed then Dalton, Georgia. On the way through Tunnel Hill, wood and water running out, Andrews realized they were not going to make it to Chattanooga as hoped. One by one the raiders jump off the train, running into the woods. When finally the General could go no farther, two miles north of Ringgold and barely five miles short of the Tennessee border, Andrews and the remaining raiders abandoned the train that had taken them on their hair-raising eighty-seven mine ride. Their mission a failure, with not a single bridge burned, they ran for their lives.

Within a week they were all caught and imprisoned. Tried and convicted as a spy, Andrews heard his death sentence and, on June 7, 1862, in Atlanta, the bold raider leader mounted the scaffold and was hanged. Eleven days later another seven of the raiders met their deaths, among them Campbell and Shadrach. Including the two men who never boarded the train in Marietta, but were captured just the same, that left 14 of the raiders awaiting similar fates.

For a long time that fate looked uncertain. Their captors regarded them as 'a desperate, bad set of men," which they proved with a daring October escape, four finding their way into friendly lines in Tennessee, two others journeying clear to Corinth, MI, to safety, and John Wilson and Mark Wood actually reaching the Yankee fleet blockading the Gulf of Mexico. The other six were recaptured almost immediately, Pittenger among them, and spent another five months in prison. Uncertain what to do with them, and apparently feeling that enough men had been hanged already, the Confederates traded them back to the Federals in exchange for the release of some southern prisoners. In March 1863, nearly a year since they had begun their adventure, the remaining railroad raiders arrived in Washington.

Ironically, in an effort to save their lives while imprisoned, Pittenger and the others had denied any knowledge of the nature of their mission beforehand. They had only followed orders, as soldiers must, they said. In a joint letter addressed to President Jefferson Davis himself, the prisoners asserted that "no real harm was done" as a result of their raid. Asking for mercy from the rope, they went so far as to swear an oath "not to fight or do anything against the Confederacy' for the rest of the war.

While Davis never responded to the appeal, and all of the remaining raiders did return to safety eventually, it might have presented an interesting scene indeed if this disavowal of their heroism had come up on March 25 when the six men released from prison met with Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. After telling them that "you will find yourselves great heroes when you get home," he emphasized the point by stepping into another room and returning with something in his hand. It was the Medal of Honor. "Congress has by a recent law ordered medals to be prepared on this model," he said, "and your party shall have the first; they will be the first that have been given to private soldiers in this war." He gave it to Private Jacob Parrott, who had just declined an appointment to West Point in favor of going back to fight the enemy.

In time, all of the surviving raiders received their medals as well, and posthumous awards went to the families of those hanged excepting Andrews and Campbell, who were civilians. And poor Private Philip Shadrach never received his, for he had enlisted, served, and been hanged under an assumed name.

For more about William Pittenger, see Pittenger Farm House.

Go To:

Fallbrook Historical Society
Fallbrook, CA Area Information: History
Elizabeth Yamaguchi's Writings On Fallbrook History

Copyright © 1998-1999 by Fallbrook Historical Society
Permission is freely granted to reproduce any or all of this page as long as credit is given to the Fallbrook Historical Society at this source:
Comments and feedback: Don and Mary Rivers
Last update: 24 January 1999.