The Charles H. Coolidge National Medal of Honor Heritage Center opened its doors last week in a series of events designed to draw visitors into scenes that spanned the history of the Medal of Honor, from the first awards to Andrews' Raiders to the youngest recipient, the War on Terror's Kyle Carpenter. While the names may have seemed familiar, many visitors admitted to being unaware of recipients' acts of valor on the battlefield. Two such recipients who were awarded our nation's highest personal military award were Lt. Col. Henry Van N. Boynton, U.S. Army, and 1st Sgt. Ray Duke, U.S. Army.
The Battles for Chattanooga, November 1863, were a struggle for control that impacted combatants and civilians from Nashville to Knoxville and from Chattanooga to Mobile and Savannah.
Gen. George H. Thomas, commander of the Army of the Cumberland, and his brave troops would emerge as victors when the smoke cleared, and the Confederate Army had retreated beyond the ridges.
On the morning of Nov. 25, Gen. Thomas scanned the field from his headquarters on Orchard Knob. At about eight o'clock, the Thirty-fifth Ohio, commanded by Lt. Col. Henry Boynton, deployed to the front line and advanced about a mile, facing strong opposition. The regiment then rejoined its brigade and moved about a mile north, facing Missionary Ridge. The Thirty-fifth was moved to the center of the brigade on the first line.
For several hours, they skirmished with the enemy until the division commander ordered a charge to the crest of the ridge. With cheers and great energy, the brigade began a bloody ascent. The steep slope of the ridge, the sharpshooters stationed at the front of the enemy troops and a strong artillery barrage did little to slow the charge. Veterans would later recall the almost race-like competition between the first and second lines, competing to hit the summit.
As they reached the top, Boynton's men sprang over the works and caught the cannoners attempting to load their pieces. Some fled the field, abandoning their guns while others stood to fight but were bayoneted before they could load the heavy pieces. Members of the Thirty-fifth pursued the artillerymen for nearly a half mile; Lt. Col. Boynton fell, severely wounded.
"For leading his regiment at Missionary Ridge, Tennessee in the face of severe fire of the enemy," Boynton received the Medal of Honor. Boynton would recover from his wounds and later play a pivotal role in the reconciliation of Union and Confederate veterans and the creation of our nation's first military battlefield park, Chickamauga and Chattanooga.
Almost 90 years later, it was 1st Sgt. Ray Duke of Whitwell, Tennessee, whose name and deeds in the Korean Conflict would be carried by the wire services across the nation. When Duke, a member of Company C, 24th Infantry Division, learned that several of his men had been separated from the division and were heavily engaged, he led a small force in a "daring assault" in an attempt to recover the position and to support the troops.
When a second wave of attacks resulted in large casualties, Duke, already wounded, calmly traveled up and down his platoon's line, coordinating fire and encouraging his troops. Wounded a second time, he agreed to first aid and then immediately returned to his position.
At dawn, the North Koreans attacked again, and Duke repeatedly braved enemy fire to insure the best defense of his platoon's position. As the casualties mounted and annihilation seemed certain, the platoon was ordered to withdraw. Duke, having been wounded a third time and realizing that his injuries were impeding his two comrades' retreat, ordered them to leave him. With great hesitancy, they left him, braced against a small embankment and firing into the ranks of the charging enemy troops.
Only much later would U.S. officials learn that Duke had been captured alive by the North Koreans. When days of torture were unsuccessful in extracting any information about U.S. forces, locations and plans from Duke, he was caged and ultimately died of starvation.
His mother received his Medal of Honor in a solemn ceremony in Washington, D.C. The accompanying citation noted that "the consummate courage, superb leadership, and heroic actions of Sgt. 1st Class Duke, displayed during intensive action against overwhelming odds, reflect the highest credit upon himself, the infantry, and the U.S. Army."
Visit the Heritage Center and hear the stories that inspire "the better angels of our nature."
Linda Moss Mines is the vice president for education for the National Medal of Honor Heritage Center and the regent, Chief John Ross Chapter, NSDAR.