The Great Locomotive Chase

The Great Locomotive Race, by Bud Hannings, excerpted from Every Day of the Civil War. McFarland and Company, Inc. Publishers, Jefferson, North Carolina. Copyright 2010 

April 7–12 1862 THE GREAT LOCOMOTIVE CHASE In Tennessee, orders arrive at each of the three Ohio regiments of General Joshua Sill’s brigade with instructions that one man from each company was to be selected for a special clandestine mission. The commanders of the respective companies gather to determine the intent of the mission and the skills required from the men to execute the mission. The mission is to commandeer a Confederate railroad train and burn bridges to disrupt the Confederate rail system. The plan, concocted by a civilian spy, James Andrews, had been tried earlier, but the mission conducted by men of the 2nd Ohio had failed. Nonetheless, it is to be once again attempted and again led by Andrews. Those who had volunteered earlier had barely escaped with their lives and decline to participate in a second raid.

The first priority remains getting men who can operate a train. The captains, aware of the requirement, begin to select the troops from their respective companies by asking for those familiar with operating a train to step forward. One of the engineers chosen, Wilson Brown, inquires of General Mitchel about the chances of success and receives this response: “That depends upon circumstances. If the enterprise can be carried out as planned by Mr. Andrews, I think the chances are very good indeed; but if any delay happens, the difficulty will be increased.” Brown replies, “Why so, General?”  Mitchel responds: “Because as the armies draw nearer, the roads will be more occupied with troops and stores moving back and forth, and these will be in your way. Your mission is very hazardous. It is not pleasant for me to send such a number of picked men into the enemy’s power; but in war great risks must be run, and we are engaged in a war of right and wrong; armed treason must be met and conquered; and if you fall, you die in a glorious cause. I have great confidence in Mr. Andrews, your leader; I trust that the great ruler of the destinies of man will protect you all!”

The selected men, who did not know who the others were, each had to dress in civilian clothes and meet with Andrews. Then the 22 men, including three civilians, initiate a 200 mile journey deep into Confederate territory en route to seize a train at Big Shanty, Georgia, and afterward proceed to destroy the tracks between Chattanooga and Atlanta. If caught, each is subject to being hanged as a spy.

Andrews instructs the men to avoid troops of the Confederate Army, which is grabbing volunteers, and if approached the men are to inform the Rebels that they are Kentuckians attempting to get south to join a regiment and “escape the rule of the Yankees.” He tells them they are to “break up in small squads of two, three, or four, and travel east into the Cumberland Mountains, then south to the Tennessee River. You can cross the river and take passage on the cars at Shell-Mound or some station between that and Chattanooga on the Memphis and Charleston.” Most importantly, he tells them, “You must be at Chattanooga not later than Thursday afternoon [10th], and reach Marietta the same evening, ready to take passage northward on the train the next morning. I will be there with you, or before you, and will then tell you what to do…. “When we once meet at Marietta, we will stay together and either come through in a body or die together.”

At Marietta on Saturday, 12 April, two of the men, Porter and Hawkins, were not awakened by the waiter because they did not pay him anything. Consequently, Andrews’ unit is reduced to nineteen men. In a last-minute conference in the railroad hotel, Andrews cautions the men and explains: “When the train stops at Big Shanty for breakfast, keep your places till I tell you to go. Get seats near each other in the same car, and say nothing about the matter on the way up. If anything unexpected occurs, look to me for the word.”

All board the train and enter the same car. Later, the train arrives at Big Shanty (later Kennesaw), and as the crowd is leaving, Andrews initiates the move. The engine is discovered empty. Andrews directs one of his men to uncouple the car at the beginning of the first baggage car, to the rear of three empty freight cars. Suddenly, the Confederate train is controlled by Union troops and the valve is shoved open, but unexpectedly, the switch had been thrown to quickly, creating a problem. Instead of roaring away, the wheels only begin to spin, but it lasts only a few seconds, too quick for the Confederates to react. Finally, after those seconds of desperation, the engine does roar, the wheels kick in and the theft had occurred so quickly that not a shot had been fired as Andrews’ train speeds away heading back to Union lines.

All seems well initially; however, as the train speeds forward, the steam level drops, due to a failure to reopen the dampers (on the engine fires) that had been closed while the train had paused in Big Shanty. Hurriedly, some oil and some fresh wood eradicate the problem. During the short pause, the troops sever the telegraph lines to eliminate warnings being sent from Big Shanty to alert other Confederates of the insolent intruders. At the time the town has no telegraph; however, Andrews remains concerned that a portable battery might be available.

At Moon’s Station, Andrews is able to acquire a tool to help expedite the operation to pull out the railroad spikes along the tracks. The workman hands over the bar without resistance, so no violence is necessary. Some dissatisfaction is noticed, however, as the train speeds through various stations without pausing to pick up passengers. Later, the train, the General, stops for water and fresh wood at Cassville. While stopped, Andrews explains that he had been sent by General Beauregard to acquire ammunition and rush it to him.

The General arrives at Kingston and must pull onto a side track to await the approach of the scheduled passenger train, but Andrews becomes impatient, as it is running late. Finally it arrives and the story regarding the ammunition for Beauregard again holds up, but Andrews also gains intelligence. The conductor of the passenger train details the capture of Huntsville by General Mitchel and that his forces are en route to Chattanooga, without any Confederate forces to intercept the columns. All the while, Andrews’ men are in the boxcars, confined to silence and unaware of the reason for the delay.

Andrews insists that he must move out immediately and the conductor inquires, “What will you do about Mitchel at Huntsville?” Andrews, continuing his flawless ruse, replies: “I do not believe the story. Mitchel would not be fool enough to run down there, but if he is, Beauregard will soon sweep him out of the road. At any rate I have my orders.” Meanwhile, back at Big Shanty, the “Conductor Fuller, Engineer Cain, and the foreman of the road machine shops, Mr. Anthony Murphy” take steps to get the train back. A horseman had sped to Marietta and sent a wire to Atlanta. While in Marietta, the runner acquires a train, which speeds to Big Shanty to load troops. Afterward, the train initiates the chase. The holdup at Kingston allows the pursuers to close, and when the General finally moves out of Kingston, the Confederates are close behind. Nevertheless, as soon as the train is out of sight of the station, it pauses to permit one of the men to ascend a pole to cut the telegraph line to ensure no helpful message is forwarded about the ammunition train for General Beauregard. In addition, with knowledge of a pursuing train, more track is ripped up to impede progress.

Andrews reaches Adairsville and asked identical questions, he responds with the story of rushing ammunition to Beauregard. When asked what about the Yankees under Mitchel, Andrews responds by telling the men that Beauregard is nearly out of ammunition and he must continue, despite the advance of Mitchel toward Chattanooga. The story is bought and the General departs expeditiously, although the Confederate trains are off schedule due to the Union advance and Andrews has to worry about an oncoming train as the General heads toward Calhoun, less than ten miles distant. After a tense delay, Andrews is able to move out of the station, but close behind, the Confederates arrive at the station, and in a new engine, the Texas, they quickly pull out with the sounds of  their whistle now being picked up by Andrews’ party.

Andrews travels through Resaca, having no time to destroy a bridge nor pull up tracks. A few more close calls occur, but still the Rebels do not catch the General as it safely speeds through Dalton. About one mile beyond Dalton, the General halts to cut the wires, but a message had already been sent warning of the stolen train. By now a rain that has been falling throughout the race intensifies. The Yankees are down to one car and Andrews orders it set afire. The boxcar is set ablaze on one of the Chickamauga bridges, but the rain had soaked the wood, so it does little damage and there is not sufficient time to move it to the next bridge. The General resumes its speed and passes through Ringgold.

Nevertheless, shortly afterward, Andrews issues an order to abandon the train, and for each man on his own to attempt to make it back to Union lines. Anderson had not had any military experience and the men, although shocked that he would order them to split up, obeyed the order. In that instant the chase was essentially over. But Andrews issues the order again and the men abandon the train at a point about five miles beyond Ringgold and less than 20 miles from Chattanooga. At the time, the train had sufficient fuel and was operating well, under the circumstances.

The entire band is eventually captured, including the two who missed the train at Marietta. Later, an escape is attempted by some, including Andrews, but he is later recaptured and given brutal punishment before being hanged. On 18 June, seven others are hanged. They are William Campbell, George D. Wilson, Marion A. Ross, Perry G. Shadrack, Samuel Slavens, and Samuel Robertson. The remaining 14 include Wilson W. Brown, William Knight, J.R. Porter, Martin J. Hawkins, Mark Wood, J.A. Wilson, John Wollam and D.A. Dorsey; they escape on 16 October 1862. The others, Jacob Parrott, Robert Buffum, William Bensinger, William Reddick, E.H. Mason and William Pittinger are exchanged on 18 March 1863. Each man becomes a recipient of the Medal of Honor for individual courage and valor above and beyond the call of duty. Initially, the six escapees receive the Medal, the first six awards presented. The others, except the civilians, receive the medal later, some posthumously.

At the hangings, the Confederates had not provided coffins. The Union troops were buried in a common grave, but after the war, the U.S. government moved quickly to extricate the remains of the Union heroes and have them reinterred in the National Cemetery at Chattanooga. On 11 April 1887, Andrews’ remains are extricated and he is reinterred at Chattanooga with those of his detachment that had also been hanged.

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