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The Great Locomotive Chase
The Great Locomotive Chase
By Randy Golden
For more than a year war raged in the fields of Virginia and Tennessee while factories and farms in Georgia produced supplies that fed and clothed the Confederate Army. In the spring of 1862, the quiet of North Georgia was shattered by a group of 22 Union spies on a mission to disrupt Confederate supply lines. The General, an engine owned by the Western and Atlantic Railroad, left Atlanta at 4:00 am on April 12, the first anniversary of the attack on Fort Sumter. At Marietta ( History of Marietta, Georgia) the raiders boarded the train under the command of James Andrews. When the train stopped for breakfast, the men made off with The General in a daring raid that had been planned the night before at the Fletcher (now Kennesaw) House (More on the Kennesaw House).
Andrews had previously gained the trust of the Confederates by smuggling quinine across the battle lines for a period of several weeks. Using these "friends" he infiltrated Georgia with men skilled in handling locomotives, among them William Knight, a young Kentucky volunteer who had been an engineer before the war. Union General Ormsby Mitchel approved the plan to steal a locomotive and move north on the Western and Atlantic Railroad, destroying track, bridges and a tunnel along the way. Mitchel, fighting in North Alabama reasoned that with the W&ARR destroyed Chattanooga(History of Chattanooga, Tennessee) could be easily taken. The Union commander agreed to take Huntsville on mdybg:April 11, 1862, which he did, and wait for Andrews to arrive in Huntsville before advancing on Chattanooga.
The train pulled up to the Lacey Hotel and the passengers and crew walked to the hotel for breakfast. Andrews had selected this as the site to hatch his plot because Big Shanty did not have a telegraph office. The spies stole the train and began the journey to Huntsville.
The crew of The General had a different idea. Jeff Cain, engineer, and Anthony Murphy, a machine foreman joined conductor William Fuller, who took the theft as a personal affront, as he pursued the raiders. On foot at first, they ran the two miles to Moon's Station, and procured a platform handcar and two members of a maintenance crew to help them pole and push. From here to the Etowah River the track grades slowly but steadily downhill. Two more men jumped on the moving handcar in Acworth.
Meanwhile, in the General, Andrews, Knight and two other Union spies stayed in the cab while the other 18 men spread through the train. Many Georgians along the route inquired when they saw Fuller's regular train and schedule with a different crew. Andrews responded by telling the men that he was taking a "powder train" through to General Beauregard, then at Corinth, a believable story since this was just a few days after Pittsburg Landing (Shiloh).
The pursuers at first thought the men were deserters who had stolen the train to escape, but the rail ties in the roadbed, cut telegraph wires and missing rails convinced them a formidable enemy lay in front of them. In Etowah Fuller took the switch engine Yonah to pursue the raiders. Suprisingly, Andrews did not remove any rails between the river and the complicated rail yard in Kingston. Delayed by northbound trains, Andrews and Fuller were now less than 10 minutes apart, although the Union spy still did not know his Raiders were being pursued. Abandoning the Yonah, Fuller and his crew of the General negotiated the yard on foot, taking the William R. Smith north towards Adairsville. They encountered track torn up by the raiders, abandoned the engine and two of them, Murphy and Fuller, continued the pursuit on foot.
Undaunted by the obstacles the raiders laid in the way Fuller and Murphy took a southbound engine, The Texas, south of the Adairsville station. The chase was on - The Texas in pursuit of the General at top speed, in reverse! Just north of the city of Calhoun the pursuers spotted the General for the first time. Andrews and Knight considered the situation. A quick attempt by the raiders to raise a rail was fruitless.
Andrews and Knight came up with three options, but the first, crossties dropped from the rear of the General, did not slow the pursuers. Next, with the raiders on the locomotive and coal tender they released two boxcars from the end of the train. Conductor Fuller and his men on the Texas pushed those off on the next siding. Now, approaching the covered wooden bridge over Oostanaula River, Andrews set fire to the remaining car hoping not only to slow the Texas but also burn the bridge. However, wet conditions made it impossible to set the bridge afire. The Texas again pushed the cars off the track and the chase became a test of endurance.
With the telegraph from Atlanta out of service because of the wire cutters employed by the raiders a telegraph operator, 17-year old Edward Henderson, headed south from Dalton (History of Dalton, Georgia) in search of the problem. South of Calhoun, Fuller saw the lad, whom he recognized, and pulled onto the moving train. Fuller wrote out a message to General Ledbetter in Chattanooga, warning him of the approach of the captured locomotive. In Dalton the telegrapher was dropped from the train and he made off to send the message.
The whistle of the pursuers warned towns and soldiers of the approaching chase, but the end was near. Just before the top of Ringgold Gap The General gave out due to a mechanical problem. The locomotive would not have made it much further. The message from Dalton had made it to Chattanooga and Confederates were already on the track travelling south to Ringgold.
The Raiders failed to destroy bridges over Chickamauga Creek or the Etowah River, or the tunnel at Tunnel Hill, their main targets.
Over the next two weeks, Andrews and his men were rounded up by the Confederates. They managed to get as far away as Bridgeport, Alabama. All 22 men were caught. Of the 14 men sent to Confederate prison 8 escaped in October, 1862 and the remaining 6 were paroled in March, 1863. Andrews and 7 of his men were tried in Atlanta and hung, their bodies buried unceremoniously in an unmarked grave.
Congress created the Medal of Honor in 1862 and awarded it to some of the Raiders. James Andrews, leader of the raiders, was not in the military and therefore not eligible. The bodies of the raiders who had been hung were disinterred from the unmarked grave and buried at Chattanooga National Cemetery. The General survived the episode and the war, continuing in service on the Western and Atlantic and the Louisville and Nashville for another 30 years.
List of the Raiders names and their Pursuers
"Biography" of The General
The General, restored in 1961, can be seen at the Southern Museum of Railroad and Civil War History, formerly the The Kennesaw Civil War Museum in Kennesaw, Ga., a stop on the Blue and Gray Trail.
The exciting tale of The General and The Texas can be relived on video. The General (VHS,DVD) is a classic film starring Buster Keaton in a fictionalized version of the story. The Great Locomotive Chase (VHS, DVD)
is a closer to accurate version of the tale, however, Disney did take some "poetic license" with the story.
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The Great Locomotive Chase was last changed on - June 4, 2011
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