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Only seven pairs of American brothers have received the Medal of Honor, only two of those pairs for the same action. The first of the latter recipients were only in their teens, and they very nearly didn’t live to accept their medals. 

During the spring 1865 siege of Petersburg, Va., Allen and James Thompson — 18 and 16, respectively — were serving as privates in Company K of the 4th New York Heavy Artillery, part of a division under Brig. Gen. Nelson A. Miles. That April 2, while pursuing Confederate forces, Nelson paused the column along White Oak Road just shy of seemingly deserted Rebel earthworks. A wary Miles called for volunteers to reconnoiter the site. Answering the call were seven men, including the Thompson brothers. 

The scouting party’s instructions were to fan out through the woods, maintaining an interval of 50 feet between each man, with rifles at the ready. If any man spotted evidence of a concealed ambush, he was to immediately fire his weapon and return to the column. Otherwise, they should signal the all-clear by waving their hats from a conspicuous tree. 

The party was scarcely halfway to the earthworks when some 50 Confederates sprang from concealment with their rifles trained on the Union soldiers, demanding they lay down their guns and surrender. But the scouts realized surrender wasn’t an option, as under Rebel interrogation they might be forced under threat of death to reveal their all-clear signal, putting their fellow Union troops at risk. 

Instead, all seven Union soldiers raised their rifles in unison and fired at the Confederates, prompting a withering return volley that dropped six men to the ground. Only Allen Thompson escaped unscathed. Leaving brother James where he lay, Allen returned to the column with a detailed description of the rebel positions, which the men of Miles’ column quickly flushed out, enabling the column to proceed. 

A detail sent to bury the men who’d been ambushed found not six corpses, but five — and a grievously wounded James Thompson. Both brothers survived the war, though not until 1896, 31 years after the action were they issued their Medals of Honor. Better late than posthumously. 

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