Chattanooga is the birthplace of the Medal of Honor, first bestowed upon a group of 19 Union soldiers who were part of the Chattanooga company that became known as “Andrews’ Raiders.” The group executed the mission known as “The Great Locomotive Chase,” taking control of a Confederate train in Marietta and running it to Chattanooga, disrupting Confederate movement and communication along the way by cutting telegraph lines and pulling up or putting timber over the tracks. All were captured and taken as prisoners, though some managed to escape. All 19 were eventually awarded the Medal of Honor, including the four who were hanged by the Confederate Army.
An unusually large number of recipients have called the city home: Alvin York, Ray Duke, Paul Huff, Desmond Doss and Charles Coolidge. Other local recipients include Dr. Mary Walker — the only woman to receive the honor. She was awarded for her actions as a doctor during the Civil War stationed just below Cameron Hill.
Plans are underway for the Charles H. Coolidge Medal of Honor Heritage Center, which has finally found its home in Aquarium Plaza downtown. Vince Butler, a longtime champion of the museum, spoke to North Chattanooga Chamber Council attendees about what's in store.
For four years the museum's proponents have been searching for a location to replace the current 950-square-foot Medal of Honor Museum location inside Northgate Mall. Butler described the new museum as "a true heritage center that will recognize the Medal of Honor for what it is."
The museum's character development program, focused on the selfless character traits exhibited by Medal of Honor recipients, was one highlight of his presentation. The program will use real stories of medal recipients to teach six character traits: sacrifice, integrity, patriotism, courage, commitment and citizenship.
"Those six values are the mission of the Heritage Center," said Butler.
He said the new 3,000- to 4,000-square-foot museum will feature immersive exhibits similar to those found in The National WWII Museum in New Orleans. It will host traveling exhibits from that museum as well as through its partnership with the Smithsonian.
Exhibits will begin with the Civil War and continue chronologically to the current War on Terror, focusing on the 32 Medal of Honor recipients from Tennessee. Visitors may experience what it was like fighting in a trench in Germany like Alvin York, or feel the weight of lowering 75 soldiers down a cliff like Desmond Doss.
"It's not a static museum," Butler said, explaining that the goal of the exhibits is to help people understand how the medal recipients' service differed from that of a typical soldier.
The Heritage Center has a 50-year lease for the space in Aquarium Plaza that's contingent upon organizers raising the $5 million to complete the fundraising campaign launched three months ago. The goal is to raise $3 million by the end of 2018, and if that goal is reached, the museum is expected to open in February 2020, Butler said.
For more information, visit mohm.org.