Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Great Locomotive Chase

The Great Locomotive Chase or Andrews' Raid was a military raid that occurred April 12, 1862, in northern Georgia during the American Civil War. Volunteers from the Union Army, led by civilian scout James J. Andrews.

He commandeered a train and took it northwards toward Chattanooga, Tennessee, doing as much damage as possible to the vital Western and Atlantic Railroad (W&A) from Atlanta to Chattanooga as they went, pursued by other locomotives. Because they had cut the telegraph wires, no warning could be sent to Confederate forces along their route. The raiders were eventually captured and some were executed as spies. Some of Andrews' Raiders became the first recipients of the Medal of Honor.


Illustration of nineteen men involved in the Great Locomotive Chase—seventeen Union soldiers and two railroad employees who chased them.
Maj. Gen. Ormsby M. Mitchel, commanding the Federal troops in middle Tennessee, planned to move south with his army and seize Huntsville, Alabama, before turning east in hopes of capturing Chattanooga, Tennessee. General Mitchel recognized the strategic value of seizing the rail and water transportation center of Chattanooga.

At the time, the standard means of preventing Chattanooga’s reinforcement would have been its encirclement. But Chattanooga’s natural water and mountain barriers to the east and south made this nearly impossible with the forces that General Mitchel had available. If, however, some means could be found to block railroad reinforcement from Atlanta, then Chattanooga could be taken. Furthermore, if Chattanooga were seized by the Union, the same tactical advantages would favor its defense. The Union Army would have rail reinforcement and supply lines in its rear, leading back to the Union-held stronghold and supply depot of Nashville, Tennessee.

James J. Andrews, a civilian scout and part-time spy, proposed a daring raid aimed at destroying the Western and Atlantic Railroad link to Chattanooga, thereby isolating the city from Atlanta. He recruited civilian William Hunter Campbell and 22 volunteer Union soldiers from three Ohio regiments, the 2nd, 21st, and 33rd Ohio Infantry. Andrews instructed the men to arrive in Marietta, Georgia, by midnight of April 10. With the plans delayed a day by heavy rain, they traveled in small parties in civilian attire to avoid arousing suspicion. All but two (Samuel Llewellyn and James Smith) reached the designated rendezvous point at the appointed time. Llewellyn and Smith joined a Confederate artillery unit, as they had been instructed to do in such circumstances.

The Chase

Because railway dining cars were not yet in common use, railroad timetables included water, rest, and meal stops. In addition, as the locomotives of the time needed to frequently replenish fuel and water, combining stops for passenger and crew meals with the stops for water and fuel became a feature of passenger railway travel.

On the morning of April 12, a passenger train with the locomotive General stopped at Big Shanty, Georgia (now Kennesaw) so that the crew and passengers could have breakfast at the Lacy Hotel. Andrews and his raiders took this opportunity to hijack the General and a few rail cars. His goal was to drive the train north towards Chattanooga to meet up with Mitchel's advancing army. The raiders chose to make their move at Big Shanty station because it had no telegraph. Along the way, Andrews planned to stop and tear up track, sabotage switches, burn covered bridges, and cut the telegraph wires at multiple locations. The raiders steamed out of Big Shanty, leaving behind startled passengers, crew members, and onlookers, which included a number of Confederate soldiers from Camp McDonald, which stood directly opposite the Lacy Hotel.

The train's conductor, William Allen Fuller, and two other men, chased the stolen train, first on foot, then by handcar. This was not as hopeless as it might have seemed. Locomotives of the time normally averaged 15 miles per hour (24 km/h), with short bursts of an average speed of 20 miles per hour (32 km/h). In addition, the terrain north of Atlanta is very hilly, and the ruling grades are steep. Even today, average speeds are usually never greater than 40 miles per hour (64 km/h) between Chattanooga and Atlanta. Since Andrews intended to stop periodically for sabotage, it would be quite possible for a determined pursuer, even on foot, to catch up before or when the train reached Chattanooga.

Fuller spotted the locomotive Yonah at Etowah and, leaving the handcar, chased the raiders north all the way to Kingston. Fuller then switched to the locomotive William R. Smith at Kingston and headed north to Adairsville. Two miles south of Adairsville, the tracks had been broken by the raiders so Fuller again had to continue his pursuit on foot. He took command of the southbound locomotive Texas at Adairsville.

The raiders never got far ahead of Fuller during this time for a variety of reasons. First, the destruction of the railway behind the hijacked train was a slow process. Second, the raiders had stolen a regularly scheduled train on its route, and they needed to keep to the train's timetable. Even if they reached a siding ahead of time, they would have to wait at the siding until scheduled southbound trains passed them, before they could continue north. All the time, Fuller was gaining on them.

The Texas train crew had been bluffed by Andrews into taking the station siding, thereby allowing the General to continue northward along the single-track mainline. As Andrews' party had cut the telegraph lines, all train crews, station masters, and W&A management to the north had no idea that the General had been captured by the enemy. Fuller, in command of the Texas, picked up 11 Confederate troops at Calhoun.

With The Texas chasing the General tender-first, the two trains steamed through Dalton, Georgia and Tunnel Hill, Georgia. The raiders continued to sever the telegraph wires at various points to prevent transmissions from going through to Chattanooga, but they were unable to burn bridges or dynamite Tunnel Hill. The wood they had hoped to burn was soaked by rain, although they did set one of the wooden box cars on fire and leave it on a bridge in the hope that the blaze would spread to the structure.
Finally, at milepost 116.3, north of Ringgold, Georgia, just a few miles from Chattanooga, with the locomotive out of fuel, Andrews' men abandoned the General and scattered. Andrews and all of his men were caught, including the two who had missed the hijacking that morning.


As all the raiders were deemed to have engaged in acts of unlawful belligerency, and the civilians also to be unlawful combatants and spies, those captured were to be put on trial. Andrews was tried in Chattanooga and found guilty. He was executed by hanging on June 7 in Atlanta. On June 18, seven others who had been transported to Knoxville and convicted as spies were returned to Atlanta and also hanged; their bodies were buried unceremoniously in an unmarked grave (they were later reburied in Chattanooga National Cemetery).

Corporal William Pittenger, who wrote the most extensive accounts of the exploit, said that the remaining raiders were concerned about meeting a like fate and, following correspondence with Confederate President Jefferson Davis, attempted to escape. Eight were successful. Traveling for hundreds of miles in pairs, they all made it back safely to Union lines, including two who were aided by slaves and Union sympathizers and two who floated down the Chattahoochee River until they were rescued by the Union blockade vessel USS Somerset. No documentation exists to show that the Confederacy intended to treat the remaining raiders any differently until after the escape. The remaining six were exchanged as prisoners of war on March 17, 1863.

The very first Medals of Honor were given to some of these men by Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. The very first was awarded to Private Jacob Wilson Parrott because of the particularly severe treatment he had endured as a prisoner. Later all but two of the other soldiers also received them (posthumously for those who had been executed). The two who have not received the Medal of Honor were executed but the story of their heroics was apparently lost in a paper shuffle at the War Department, and it took some lobbying for them to be appropriately honored. As civilians, Andrews and Campbell were not eligible.

The pursuit of Andrews' Raiders formed the basis of the Buster Keaton silent film comedy The General and a dramatic 1956 Walt Disney film, The Great Locomotive Chase, starring Fess Parker as Andrews.

Monument and markers

The Ohio Monument dedicated to Andrews' Raiders is located at the Chattanooga National Cemetery. There is a scale model of the General on top of the monument, and a brief history of the Great Locomotive Chase. The General is now in the Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History, Kennesaw, Georgia, while the Texas is on display at the Atlanta Cyclorama.

One marker indicates where the chase began, near the Big Shanty Museum in Kennesaw, while another shows where the chase ended at Milepost 116.3, north of Ringgold — not far from the recently restored depot at Milepost 114.5.

The site where Andrews was hanged has a historic marker; it's in downtown Atlanta Georgia, at the corner of 3rd Street and Juniper Street.

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