The Great Locomotive Chase

This entry is part 5 of 8 in the series Railroads of the Civil War

The GeneralPerhaps, the most daring raid involving railroads was Andrews’ Raid, better known as the Great Locomotive Chase. Union Army volunteers led by civilian scout (read spy) James J. Andrews captured a locomotive named the General with one car. There intention was to do as much damage as they could to the rail line between Big Shanty, Georgia and Chattanooga, Tennessee in order to hamper the Confederate’s use of the vital Western and Atlantic Railroad (W&A) line.

But first let’s look at the background of the raid. Union forces led by Major General Ormsby M. Mitchel, who commanded Union troops in Middle Tennessee, planned to move south with his army and seize Huntsville, Alabama, before turning east in hopes of capturing Chattanooga. Mitchel recognized the strategic value of seizing the rail and water transportation center of Chattanooga.

Chattanooga because of its natural defenses could not be successfully surrounded by Union besiegers so another means of siege was necessary. Mitchel realized that his only means of capturing Chattanooga was to cut of reinforcements by the Confederates in Atlanta. Once he captured the city he would have control of the rail net that connected it with the Union base at Nashville.

James J. Andrews who was a scout and a part-time spy for Mitchel proposed a daring plan to Mitchel. He and 23 volunteers would size a train in Georgia and head north destroying bridges and track along the way. He recruited civilian William Hunter Campbell and 22 volunteer Union soldiers from three Ohio regiments: the 2nd, 21st, and 33rd Ohio Infantry. Mitchel approved the plan and Andrews and his raiders headed south to Marietta, Georgia where they planned to rendezvous.

On April 11, 1862 the majority of men met up at Marietta after being delayed one full day by heavy rains. Andrews plan called for two men to join a Confederate artillery unit if they missed the rendezvous.

Andrews plan called for Mitchel’s forces to attack Chattanooga simultaneously with Andrews’ hijacking of the train. Meanwhile, the raiders would deprive the Confederates of a means of reinforcing Chattanooga from their main base of Atlanta.

This being the era before railroad dining cars trains would stop along their routes in order for the passengers to eat and refresh themselves on their routes. On the morning of April 12th The General  stopped at Big Shanty, Georgia on its regular run from Atlanta to Chattanooga.

When the passengers debarked, Andrews and his raiders seized the locomotive and one car. They set off north for Chattanooga planning to damage or destroy track, bridges, telegraph wires, and track switches behind them, so as to prevent the Confederate Army from being able to move troops and suppliesWestern and Atlantic Railroad from Atlanta to Chattanooga from Atlanta to Chattanooga. They had hijacked the train at Big Shanty because it had no telegraph office that could alert authorities up the line.

They steamed out of Big Shanty, leaving behind startled passengers, crew members, and onlookers, which included a number of Confederate soldiers from Camp McDonald, 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.

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Locomotives of the time could average about 15 miles an hour with short bursts on the downhill grades of about 20 miles per hour. The rail line between Atlanta and Chattanooga was fairly steep in many places. A determined pursuer could conceivably catch up with train since Andrews planned stops along the way in order to sabotage the line.

In his footrace north, Fuller spotted the locomotive Yonah at Etowah and commandeered it, chasing the raiders north all the way to Kingston. There, Fuller switched to the locomotive William R. Smith and continued north towards Adairsville. Two miles south of Adairsville, however, the raiders had destroyed the tracks, and Fuller was forced to continue the pursuit on foot. Beyond the damaged section, he took command of the southbound locomotive Texas at Adairsville, running it backwards, tender-first, northward.

For a variety of reasons the raiders were never able to get too far ahead of their pursuers. Destroying bridges and track was slow and tedious work, particularly since they were not properly equipped with the tools and explosives necessary to do the job efficiently. In the time the raiders had, they could not either permanently disable or destroy any section of the installed railway equipment of the W&A. The railway was simply too well built for their efforts to yield anything more than temporary and superficial damage.

The raid was also stymied by the fact that the W&A was a single track line between Atlanta and Chattanooga. They needed to shunt over to sidings along the way to allow south-bound trains to pass. Andrews had concocted a cover story that this was a special train under secret orders from General P.G.T. Beauregard. Unfortunately, he had no written order to move the train north and was forced to move on its normal timetable.

While all of this was taking place Mitchel’s forces had advanced against Chattanooga on the original schedule. Andrews had assumed that Mitchel would be delayed but he was not. The Confederates in Chattanooga responded with alacrity to the attack.

Confederate Military Railway officials in Chattanooga had sufficient time to order, organize, and implement the emergency evacuation of all engines and rolling stock in Chattanooga. Special freight trains with superior right of passage (over the single track line between Chattanooga and Atlanta) were made up in Chattanooga and ordered southbound, hauling critical railroad supplies away from the Union threat, so as to prevent their either being captured by General Mitchel or trapped uselessly inside Chattanooga during a Union siege of the city.

James AndrewsThe General got as far as Kingston, Georgia when they were forced to wait as two of the special trains from Chattanooga passed them. This delayed Andrews’ movement north; and gave Fuller all the time he needed to close the distance to the raiders.

The raiders bypassed the Yonah, at Etowah rather than capture her because of the size of the work crew operating the locomotive. They also passed the Texas by bluffing them into taking the siding with his story about being a special ammunition train. When Fuller encountered the Texas he took control of it, recruited eleven Confederate soldiers and continued his dogged pursuit.

With the Texas still chasing the General tender-first, the two trains steamed through Dalton and Tunnel Hill. The raiders continued to sever the telegraph wires, but they were unable to burn bridges or damage Tunnel Hill. The wood they had hoped to burn was soaked by rain.

Finally, at milepost 116.3, north of Ringgold, Georgia, just 18 miles from Chattanooga, with the locomotive out of fuel, Andrews’ men abandoned the General and scattered. Andrews and all of his men were caught within two weeks, including the two who had missed the hijacking.

All the raiders were charged with “acts of unlawful belligerency”; the civilians were charged as unlawful combatants and spies. All the prisoners were tried in military courts. Tried in Chattanooga, Andrews was 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 but were later reburied in Chattanooga National Cemetery.

Writing about the exploit, Corporal William Pittenger said that the remaining raiders worried about also being executed. They attempted to escape and eight succeeded. 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. The remaining six were held as prisoners of war and exchanged for Confederate prisoners on March 17, 1863.

Nineteen of the raiders were awarded Medals of Honor. James J. Andrews and William Hunter Campbell who were civilians were not eligible.

On the morning of April 11, 1862, Union troops seized Huntsville to sever the Confederacy’s rail communications. The Union troops were forced to retreat some months later, but returned to Huntsville in the fall of 1863 and thereafter used the city as a base of operations for the remainder of the war. Chattanooga fell to Union troops on September 9, 1863 and was the Union base under Ulysses S. Grant during the Battles for Chattanooga in late November 1863.


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