Danville resident Andy Reddick’s great-grandfather, William Henry Harrison Reddick, buried in Letts, was one of the first six Medal of Honor recipients. The event for which he received the Medal of Honor, Andrew’s Railroad Raid during the start of the Civil War, was made into a movie in 1956 — “The Great Locomotive Chase,” starring Fess Parker.
I caught up with Andy, a retired teacher, at his book- and computer-lined home in Danville. Andy is a history buff and author. He writes a weekly newspaper column — Country Facts and Folklore — carried by two newspapers, the Van Buren County Leader Record and Van Buren County Register. According to Andy, 11 percent of Iowa’s population was engaged in the Civil War, with 29 Medals of Honor awarded.
Andy and I made a trip to the Letts cemetery, and on the way he recounted the story of how his great-grandfather came to receive the nation’s top military honor.
President Lincoln wanted an early end to the Civil War. He authorized a top secret raid into the deep South, which would hopefully disrupt communications and transportation routes, thereby bringing the war to an immediate halt. Volunteers were requested from an Ohio regiment for what would surely be a suicide mission. Corporal William Henry Harrison Reddick, along with 18 other soldiers, stepped forward. So secret was the mission that the soldiers were actually listed as AWOL.
To command the troop, a highly unusual leader was chosen. James J. Andrews, a civilian, was a spy, runner (person running messages back and forth) and double agent. The 19 men he would lead also were dressed as civilians and taught to speak with a southern drawl. Their mission was to commandeer a train at Big Shanty, Ga., cut telegraph wires, tear up tracks, blow up bridges and tunnels and generally do anything to disrupt the South’s supply routes and communication lines. The 19 men were not expected to return.
Andrews’ Raiders, as they were called, did commandeer a train — The General — but were pursued by the train’s conductor on a hand car. The General had to pull over on a side rail to let approaching trains pass. Andrews was quick to tell suspicious Southern soldiers that he was running ammunition through to General Beauregard. However, the delay allowed a pursuing Confederate train, The Texas, to catch up to the General.
With the mission failing, Andrews told his men they were on their own. Some were shot immediately. Eleven survived, were taken prisoner, and sent to prison camps. Five of the 11 died while held prisoner, leaving six, including Reddick.
While in prison, a prisoner exchange took place between the North and South. Reddick, with the five other comrades, was released. They chose to return to their military company, where they received promotions — Reddick from Corporal to 2nd Lieutenant.
The six released prisoners received the first Congressional Medals of Honor awarded. The 13 deceased soldiers also received the Medal of Honor posthumously. Reddick’s finest recollection in life was meeting and speaking with President Abraham Lincoln, who talked to them extensively about the raid.
For more information about one of the most publicized military operations of the Civil War, refer to “In Pursuit of The General” by William Pittenger.
At the Letts Cemetery, on William Henry Harrison Reddick’s impressive grave marker, are the words, “Enlisted Co B, 33 Ohio Volunteers. Also a member of Andrews’ Raiders. Captured and held 11 months in Libby prison.”
Sometimes the sacrifices so many brave people have made for this great country of ours overwhelms me.
Have a good story? Call Curt Swarm in Mt. Pleasant at (319) 217-0526, or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.