John Alfred Wilson
"Experience has taught me that man, in the fix we were, is the worst and most desperate creature on earth,
and will do things that seem utter impossibilities before their accomplishment."
Two fun facts to get your Friday night off and rolling: First, I haul ass out of Seattle on a fusion-powered jetpack Monday morning for my East Coast book tour, so if you haven't marked your calendar yet (and, judging by the RSVPs to the Facebook events pages, you haven't) here's the link to a page that has the final list of dates, times, and locations of this particular portion of the tour. If you're a fan of things that don't suck and want to hear a pretty funny presentation about the Norse God Thor (one that involves a picture of the God of Thunder playing Whack-a-Mole, I might add), then come out and get your copies of BADASS signed. Please don't resign me to the role of that sad lonely dude sitting at a crappy card table in the back of the bookstore alternating back and forth between trying to pressure old ladies to buying books about badasses and crying hysterically into a worn-out Starbucks cup filled with Natty Ice.
Second fact: Today is National Medal of Honor Day here in the United States. I know, I had no idea until this morning either, but I suppose this is one of the advantages of following the official US Army Twitter page. Now, even though Medal of Honor Day isn't really the sort of Hallmark Holiday that necessitates ordering beautiful floral arrangements for your mom or one that requires you to go out and buy a double-chocolate frosted cake shaped like a thermonuclear warhead mid-detonation, it's still significant in that it marks the 148th anniversary of the date on which the first Medals of Honor were issued to soldiers for valor and bravery in combat. And that's a pretty fucking big deal. The men who received their coveted uber-prestigious five-pointed hunks of gold on March 25, 1863 were awarded this honor for their participation in one of the most sincerely ultra-hardcore episodes in American history – the Great Locomotive Chase of 1862 – and to honor these men on this day, I'll present the story of one of those supremely-worthy and sufficiently-badass heroes – Private John Alfred Wilson of the 21st Ohio Infantry.
In April of 1862, the Union Army was looking for some good news to boost their morale in their ongoing death struggle with a rampaging army of Confederate Rebel upstarts in the South. After being on the wrong end of a relentless series of epic face-beatings in the early days of the war, the Union Army in the West was now finally getting their shit together, won some early fights, and had begun advancing their forces into Northern Alabama and Tennessee. One of the Federal commanders, General Ormsby Mitchel (a man I only mention in a desperate attempt to get parents to bring back the name "Ormsby" into contemporary usage), was looking to pull out all the stops in his relentless effort to capture Chattanooga, TN and strike a decisive blow against a powerful Rebel stronghold. Unfortunately for our boy Ormsby, Chattanooga was just a short train ride away from a few hundred thousand Confederate shitkickers in Atlanta, and any attempt to capture Chattanooga was going to fail miserably unless the Union could cut the city off from reinforcements. If Orms was going to take Chattanooga, he was going to need an insane plan – and some insane men to execute it.
John Alfred Wilson was a 29 year-old Private in the 21st Ohio Infantry Regiment when the call came down that Federal high command was looking for two dozen out-of-control psychos to volunteer for a ridiculously dangerous suicide mission deep behind Confederate lines. Wilson, who was always looking to do awesome shit, immediately signed up. He was paired with another man from his regiment, Private Mark Wood, and together these hard-as-hell soon-to-be-saboteurs put on civilian clothes, crossed the border into Tennessee, and spent four days traveling by foot through enemy-controlled territory until they reached the railroad town of Marietta, Georgia. There, they linked up with 18 other Union spies and espionage experts set on initiating one of the craziest and most daring raids in the entirety of the war – they were going to steal a Confederate railroad car, drive it north towards Chattanooga, and wreak havoc on the rail system along the way.
Andrews' Raiders (so called because they were led by a man named Andrews) stuffed revolvers under their coats, boarded a train known as "The General" at Marietta Station, and for the glory of the Union these undercover Federal agents began riding it north towards Chattanooga. Then, when everybody got off the train to get breakfast outside Kennesaw, Georgia (this was back before dining cars made traveling by train marginally more bearable), Pvt. Wilson and the rest of the raiders stormed the locomotive engine, commandeered the train, and peeled out of there like joyriding maniacs, leaving all the conductors and passengers in the dust wondering what the fuck just happened. The train-gankers immediately tore ass north, destroying the tracks behind them, cutting telegraph lines by swinging on them like Tarzan (no kidding), and torching a bunch of bridges and shit in an effort to fuck up the train link between Atlanta and Chattanooga.
This ridiculously dangerous and balls-out attempt at sabotage would have worked, too, if it wasn't for a completely out-of-his-fucking-mind badass Georgian named William Allen Fuller. Fuller was the full-time conductor on "The General", and when he saw that he was getting trainjacked by a bunch of Yankee bastards this mustachioed hardass crammed a half-ton of bacon in his mouth, kicked over his breakfast table, ran out of the restaurant, and started hauling ass after his runaway train. On foot. Over the next 51 hours, Fuller completely lost his shit, chasing "The General" down first on foot, then using one of those wacky handcar things from the cartoons, and then by commandeering a southbound train, loading it up with stragglers from the 1st Georgia Infantry, throwing the locomotive in reverse, and pursuing "The General" while riding the damn train backwards down the track. When Wilson and the Raiders saw Fuller screaming towards them ass-first like a goddamned maniac, they set a train car on fire and released the coupling so that it careened right at him, but Fuller just busted right through it and kept on rolling. Then, with Fuller and the mad Georgians hot on their trail, the Raiders ran out of steam and "The General", now completely out of fuel, slowly came to a halt along the tracks. Wilson and Wood jumped off the moving train and sprinted into the woods while musket balls whizzed pasts their heads.
While the Locomotive Chase wasn't an earth-shattering success that was going to get John Wilson's face on a postage stamp anytime soon, it was also just the beginning of this daring spy's adventure. For the next 36 hours, Wilson and Wood were pursued through the mountains and the forests of Tennessee by soldiers, civilians, and tracking dogs. After eluding capture during the night and talking their way out of what Wilson refers to as a "ticklish situation" (his term for being apprehended by a Confederate Cavalry company and having the commander tell him, "we don't take prisoners, we execute them."), the fleeing men captured a boat, took it down the Tennessee River, and made it nearly 50 miles towards Union lines. After bluffing a group of Confederate stragglers into thinking Wilson was just some inquisitive Georgia civilian, the on-the-run Yankee spies learned that the Union Army had just taken the town of Stevenson, Alabama, which was just a few miles from their location. Wilson and Wood walked to Stevenson, eager for their arduous ordeal to be over.
When they got there, they found it had already been re-taken by the Rebels. Whoops. Both Wilson and Wood were captured on sight, just seven miles from friendly lines. They were brought before the Confederate Commander in the sector, one General Ledbetter, who took great pleasure in telling the men they were going to be hung to death as spies and then thrown in an unmarked grave. Wilson handled the notification of his horrible imminent death in the sort of way you'd expect a stone-cold badass to respond to shit like that: He looked Ledbetter in the eye and told him, "Hang me and be damned; but I tell you one thing to remember. If you ever do come across one of [our] men, and hang him, look out that sooner or later your own neck don't pay the penalty – because this hanging business will be quite common about the time this rebellion closes up."
Ledbetter didn't take this very well.
Wilson and Wood were taken to Chattanooga, dragged through the streets in chains, and thrown into a horrible place affectionately known among the prisoners as "The Hole". It was here that Wilson learned that he'd been the last of the Raiders to be captured – the rest of the men were already down in the Hole waiting for him. Together, these 22 prisoners (the twenty train raiders, plus two other spies who were captured on their way to Marietta) spent the next five months in a 13-by-13 foot unventilated, unlit dirt room in the basement of an old prison, baking away in the suffocating airless heat of the stifling Tennessee summer. Their chains were never removed, their clothes became infested with lice, and their food consisted of cornmeal and rancid meat. It pretty much sucked balls, and when Wilson and the men figured their lives couldn't possible suck any more balls if it tried, the Confederates then went out and hung eight of the Raiders, executing them for being spies (which they pretty much were).
After five months in the Hole, Wilson was transferred to much better conditions at Fulton Country Prison in Atlanta, but even though he wasn't getting bitten by his food anymore he and the 14 remaining prisoners knew they had to get the fuck out of there right quick if they wanted to continue being not dead. So, one night, when the guard came to drop off their food, the Raiders struck – they attacked the guard, took his keys, opened all the cells, and attempted a daring breakout from a prison located right in the middle of friggin' Atlanta. Wilson fought his way out of there hand-t-hand style, first swinging around a loose brick he'd pried from the wall of his cell, and then throwing down with the guards barroom brawl style, busting skulls with an empty bottle of whiskey he'd found in the barracks.
With the guards subdued by extreme bottle-swinging violence, John Wilson and the rest of the Raiders rushed out of the jail, blitzed through the town, and jumped the city walls while musket balls cracked all around them – one shot hit so close to the wooden wall that splinters from it shot up and got into Wilson's leg, but he kept on trucking. The escapees ran to the nearby woods, split up into groups of two, and ran off in different directions to increase their chances of escape.
Wilson once again teamed up with his old friend Mark Wood, and together they spent the next three days picking their way through the woods while dogs and guys with guns chased after them. They made it to the Chattahoochee river, and then, realizing that everyone was expecting them to go North, they made yet another in a long series of balls-out moves – they stole a boat and headed South towards Florida. The two men crossed nearly 300 miles in the next 30 days, sailing downstream on a stolen boat, living off the land, scavenging farmland at night for food, and fighting alligators in the Florida swamp by hitting them with paddles. They also hit a dolphin with a paddle because they didn't know what it was, which is kind of rad. Finally, half-dead, starving, sunburned and suffering from mosquito bites, scurvy, and yellow fever, the men finally reached the mouth of the Chattahoochee. In the distance, they saw the ships of the Federal blockade, so they took a homemade canoe out on the open water (they had to build their own after their stolen ship was re-stolen back from them while they were camped on shore one night), survived the high seas, and got picked up by a Federal gunboat. They were two of only eight escapees to make it home -- the rest were all re-captured before crossing back to Union lines.
After sailing to Jamaica and a couple other cool places with the gunboat, Wilson was brought back to Washington, DC, where he was promptly imprisoned for violating a mandatory curfew. Wilson got out of jail the next morning, met Abraham Lincoln, and was personally presented the first-ever batch of Medals of Honor for his service to the American Army by the President himself. (Note: His award was presented in September, 1863, rather than on March 25, 1863 with the rest of the Raiders, but since this guy actually wrote down his memoirs he was the one I decided to write about.) He would later re-join his old unit, get married, write his memoirs, fight through the war, and live to be 72.
Home of Heroes
Pritchard, Russ A. Raiders of the Civil War. Globe Pequot, 2006.
Rottman, Gordon L. The Most Daring Raid of the Civil War. Rosen, 2011.
Wilson, John Alfred. The Adventures of Alf. Wilson. Blade Printing, 1880.
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