First Medal of Honor Recipient Private Jacob Parrott

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Medal of Honor is the highest military award presented in the United States, but someone had to earn it first. In this lesson we'll explore the life and military career of Jacob Parrott, the medal's first recipient.

The Medal of Honor

In 1860, the United States didn't have much in the way of a standing army. They recruited soldiers as they needed them, but the federal government didn't have much need for a professional fighting force. So, there weren't any permanent awards established to recognize soldiers for their efforts. The closest thing that America had was a Certificate of Merit that was presented to soldiers of the Mexican-American War from 1845-1848. Then, the Civil War broke out. The federal government had to massively increase the size of the military, and military commanders soon realized they needed some way to recognize particularly meritorious soldiers. In 1862, Congress formally created the Medal of Honor, which to this day is the highest military award of the nation. It wasn't long before they got a chance to use it. On March 25, 1863, Congress bestowed the first Medal of Honor upon Private Jacob Parrott of the United States Army.

Jacob Parrott
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Jacob Parrott

Parrott was born in Ohio in 1843. At the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, he joined the US Army with the 33rd Ohio Infantry. He served throughout the war, reaching the rank of first lieutenant, and afterwards returned home to his career as a cabinetmaker and operator of a stone quarry. He died in 1908 at the age of 65 and is buried in Kenton, Ohio.

Medal of Honor Action

So, how did Jacob Parrott, as a private, earn the first Medal of Honor? In April of 1862, Parrott was one of 22 men to volunteer for a dangerous raid of a Confederate railway line that has been remembered in history as the Great Locomotive Chase. Under the command of Major General Ormsby Mitchel and guided by civilian scout James Andrews, Parrott's and the others' mission was to disrupt the railroads heading into Chattanooga, Tennessee. Mitchel planned to lay siege to the Confederate city, but knew that he could never take it as long as the trains were able to continually resupply it.

The Great Locomotive Chase
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So, on April 12, 1862, Parrott and crew hijacked a passenger train named General while it stopped to give its passengers a chance to eat breakfast on the way from Atlanta to Chattanooga. Andrew's Raiders, as the group of Union soldiers came to be known, stole the first car of the train and took off, stopping every few miles to cut telegraph wires, destroy bridges, switch tracks, and damage the railroad as much as they could. The Confederate soldiers stationed in the town where the train was hijacked pursued after them in a handcar, but since the telegraph wires had been cut, couldn't call out for additional support. The Confederate troops on handcars eventually spotted another train, which they commandeered, and for 87 miles Andrew's Raiders sped across the South, destroying as much infrastructure as they could, all while under hot pursuit by Confederate-controlled train cars.

The Raiders pose with the General
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