Medal of Honor Winner

Medal similar to the one awarded Capt. Wood, and Capt. R. H. Wood’s Grave Marker located in Woodburn Cemetery

     Some 30 years after the end of the war, Civil War veterans were awarded Congressional Medals of Honor, the nation’s highest award for heroism in battle. Capt. R. H. Wood of Woodburn, a company comander in the 97th Illinois Infantry Regiment, was one of the first to receive his medal, given for service before Vicksburg.

     An account of the action which resulted in the awarding of the Congressional Medal of Honor to Capt. Wood appeared in the Feb. 2, 2000 issue of the Bunker Hill Gazette-News. It follows:

     For superb gallantry and reckless indifference to death and danger, there is nothing in military history to excel the conduct of the “forlorn hope” that led the general assault on Vicksburg on May 22, 1863.

     An extract, published in Volume 1, Deeds of Valor, published in 1907 gives a brief story about the unsuccessful charge on Vicksburg and shows that Captain Wood led one of the groups of volunteers, “The Forlorn Hope” at Vicksburg.

     General Grant had encircled the city on three sides with a line of battle twelve miles long, and on the Mississippi, which formed the fourth side, were Admiral Porter’s warships. The strength of the enemy had been greatly underestimated, and it was decided to make an attempt to take the city by storm.

     Vicksburg had a natural barrier on its west with 200-foot bluffs protecting it. The Confederates had surrounded it with a chain of forts, extending along the bend of the river for about seven miles. These forts were 200 yards apart, connected by high dirt walls and protected by a ten-foot ditch or trench with slanted sharpened stakes.

     The point of attack was in front of the Second Division of the Fifteenth Army Corps, and on the afternoon of May 21st, each regimental commander of the division explained the plan of operations to his men and called for volunteers. One hundred and fifty men were required for a group of volunteers called “forlorn hope” to lead the way for the real attack. Three hundred volunteered.

     As these men would be certain to draw the enemy’s fire there was little probability of any of them returning alive, and because of that it was decided not to order any man to go, but to depend entirely on volunteers. Each regiment was to supply its quotas, and in view of the terrible risk to be incurred, orders were given that none but unmarried men were to be accepted.

     The work assigned to the “forlorn hope” was to build a bridge over the ditch which protected the front of the enemy’s fort, plant their scaling ladders against the embankment, and it was expected that by the time this was done, the supporting brigades would be ready to take the works by a grand assault.

     On the following morning the storming party was led through a ravine to the Jackson Road, which crossed the enemy’s lines at right angles. In this ravine, out of sight of the enemy, was a pile of roughly hewn logs, another of lumber, and a number of scaling ladders. The advance party was to carry the logs, two men to each log, make a dash for the enemy’s entrenchments and throw the logs across the ditch to form the groundwork of a bridge. The second detachment was to run close up with the lumber, which was to be thrown across the logs to make sure footing for the stormers. The third detachment was to bring up the scaling ladders, rush across the bridge and plant them against the enemy’s works.

     The moment that the “forlorn hope” emerged from the ravine, they came within the view of the enemy, who opened so heavy a fire on them that their works were covered with clouds of smoke. The gallant little band advanced at a dead run, but in the eighty rods of open ground which lay between them and the fort, about half of them were shot down. When the survivors arrived at the ditch, they found it impossible to build a bridge, as so many of the logs had been dropped by the way. It was impossible to remain where they were, exposed to the enemy’s fire, so there was nothing for them to do but to jump into the ditch, and seek shelter. Private Howell G. Trogden, who carried the flag of the storming party, planted it on the parapet of the fort, and dropped back into the ditch, where he kept up a fire to prevent the confederates from reaching it and taking it in.

     All day long, from 10 o’clock in the morning until darkness fell, the unequal fight went on; then the little body of survivors crept out of the ditch, carrying with them their flags, riddled with bullets, and made their way back to their own lines. Of the storming party eighty-five percent were either killed or dangerously wounded, and few of them escaped without a wound of some kind.

     The Forlorn Hope was one of the most thrilling and tragical charges in the whole history of the war. It was a daring and, as was afterwards proved, a foolhardy undertaking.

     The surviving heroes whose courage and bravery were fittingly recognized by a grateful country were given the award.

     On Dec. 12, 1895, more than 30 years after the action for which he was cited, Capt. Wood was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

     Word of Capt. Wood's being named a Congressional Medal of Honor winner was published in the manner of the day - with extensive writing but small headlines and on the inside pages. Included here is the announcement and other comments as they occurred in the Dec. 18, 1895 issue of the Bunker Hill Gazette:

     The friends of Capt. R. H. Wood, and particularly his old army comrades, will be glad to know that he has received from the War Department, a Medal of Honor in recognition of services mentioned in the following letter of transmittal:

     War Department, Washington City,
     December 12, 1895.
     Capt. R. H. Wood,
     late of Co. A, 97th Ills. Vol.,
     Woodburn, Illinois:

     Sir: I have the honor to inform you that, by direction of the President, and in accordance with the act of Congress approved March 3, 1865, providing for the presentation of Medals of Honor to such officers, non-commissioned officers and privates as have most distinguished themselves in action, the Assistant Secretary of War has awarded you a medal of honor for most distinguished gallantry in action at Vicksburg, Mississippi, May 22, 1863, while leading a volunteer storming party which made a most gallant assault upon the enemy's works.

     The medal has been forwarded to you today by registered mail. Upon the receipt of it please advise this office thereof.
     Very respectfully,
     F. H. Cavannah,      Col. U. S. Army
     Chief, Record and Pension Office.

     Capt. Wood's command was in McClernand's and (13th) Corps. In response to a call for volunteers, he and twenty men with him, formed a party to precede the charging column in an assault upon the enemy's works. They met such a murderous fire that it was impossible to go in except as prisoners, and it was death to retreat; in this strait they sought such shelter as they could, and regained their lines after nightfall. The charging column which was to follow them, failed to reach as near to the enemy's lines as they did. It was a desperate venture, nobly undertaken, and its failure casts no blemish upon those engaged in it, but testifies to their superb courage.

     The medal is of metal from captured bronze cannon. The surmount is a spread eagle, attached to which is a ribbon of national colors; depending therefrom is a five-pointed star, upon the obverse of which is a representation of soldiers in action; the reverse bears the name and rank of the recipient, with the words "Presented by the Congress," and place and date of the service for which it was given.

      The following week The Gazette quoted Wood and a private from his company in an interview column.

     Capt. Wood said, “Of course I highly prize the Medal of Honor awarded me for service at Vicksburg, but there are other men who were engaged in that affair who were as deserving as I, and I hope to see them honored in the same way.”

     Steve Smith,  member of his company, said, “I was in Capt. Wood's Company (97th Ills.) and well remember the move he made for which he recently received a Medal of Honor. There were two volunteers from each company in the regiment, and Bob Dickie of Gillespie was one of the two from my company.”

     Two years before that, on Oct. 11, 1893, Capt. Wood was quoted in an interview in The Gazette about his war experiences. “What about our regiment, the 97th Illinois? Well, it did its duty like most regiments from this state, or from any other state for that matter. We left Springfield in October, 1862, and fought under Sherman at Chickasaw Bluffs in December. We were in the attack on Arkansas Post, and were the first regiment inside the fort, making a charge. We were in McClernand's corps in the siege of Vicksburg. May 20th, 1863, Lieut. Aleck Atchison was killed while leading his company; there never was a more gallant soldier or better comrade. From Vicksburg we were sent to the Army of the Gulf. Near New Orleans we lost 16 killed and 75 badly  injured in a railroad collision. After doing provost guard duty in New Orleans we went on the Mobile expedition, doing a nine day's bloody siege. At Fort Blakely, in the final charge my company (A) lost 16 killed and wounded. Among the wounded who recovered were Steve Smith and myself. We did duty in Alabama, and then in Texas, and were discharged in July, 1865. Co. A went into service with 84 officers and men and received 34 recruits, making a total of 118 officers and men. Being the right flanking company it drilled the skirmish drill and in the fore part of the service marched on the flank of the regiment as skirmishers a great deal. It had the bayonet drill almost perfect and frequently received the commendation of the Colonel for its completeness in that and skirmish maneuvers. The boys could not "rally by fours" or "on the reverse," nor could they "advance" nor "leap to the rear" as actively as they could thirty years ago.

     After the war Capt. Wood returned to Woodburn and went into business. The obituary at his death on March 8, 1903 said that Richard H. Wood had died at the age of 69.

     The obituary notes that he was born in Canton, New Hampshire, Nov. 13, 1833. When he was three years of age his parents moved to Upper Alton, Ill., where they remained until 1843, when the family moved to Woodburn. He made his home there for 60 years, less time in service.

     It detailed his life, his two marriages, his children and grand­children and briefly summarized his military service. He enlisted in Bunker Hill for three months service in April 1861, and served as private in Co. F, 7th Illinois Infantry. He received his discharge in July, 1861. On Sept. 8, 1862, he again entered the service as first lieutenant in the 97th Illinois Infantry, and later became captain of his company. “He served bravely through many battles and was wounded in the fleshy part of his left arm at the battle of Mobile. He was honorably discharged from service on May 15, 1865, at the conclusion of the war. He bears the record of a brave soldier and a fearless officer.”

     He was president of the board of trustees of Woodburn for 25 years. He was supervisor from Bunker Hill Township for 10 years, nine years in succession, and held the position at the time of his death. He was Justice of the Peace for 20 years, census enumerator for three censuses, township collector for one year, assessor for three years, and a notary public for a number of years.