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American Civil War: Great Locomotive Chase

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American Civil War: Great Locomotive Chase

Great Locomotive Chase, 1862

Photograph Source: Public Domain

Great Locomotive Chase: Conflict & Date:

The Great Locomotive Chase took place April 12, 1862, during the American Civil War (1861-1865).

Great Locomotive Chase: Background:

In early 1862, Brigadier General Ormsby Mitchel, commanding Union troops in central Tennessee, began planning to advance on Huntsville, AL before attacking towards the vital transportation hub of Chattanooga, TN. Though eager to take the latter city, he lacked sufficient forces to block any Confederate counterattacks from Atlanta, GA to the south. Moving north from Atlanta, Confederate forces could quickly arrive in the Chattanooga area by using the Western & Atlantic Railroad. Aware of this issue, civilian scout James J. Andrews proposed a raid designed sever the rail connection between the two cities. This would see him lead a force south to seize a locomotive. Steaming north, his men would destroy tracks and bridges in their wake.

Andrews had proposed a similar plan to Major General Don Carols Buell earlier in the spring which called for a force to destroy railroads in western Tennessee. This had failed when the engineer did not appear at the designated rendezvous. Approving Andrews' scheme, Mitchel directed him to select volunteers from Colonel Joshua W. Sill's brigade to aid in the mission. Selecting 22 men on April 7, he was also joined by experienced engineers William Knight, Wilson Brown, and John Wilson. Meeting with the men, Andrews directed them to be in Marietta, GA by midnight on April 10.

Great Locomotive Chase - Moving South:

Over the next three days, the Union men slipped through the Confederate lines disguised in civilian attire. If questioned, they had been provided with a cover story explaining that they were from Fleming County, KY and were looking for a Confederate unit in which to enlist. Due to heavy rains and rough travel, Andrews was forced to delay the raid by a day. All but two of the team arrived and were in position to begin operations on April 11. Meeting early the next morning, Andrews issued final instructions to his men which called for them to board the train and sit in the same car. They were to do nothing until the train reached Big Shanty at which point Andrews and the engineers would take the locomotive while the others uncoupled most of the train's cars.

Great Locomotive Chase - The Chase Begins:

Departing Marietta, the train arrived in Big Shanty a short time later. Though the depot was surrounded by Confederate Camp McDonald, Andrews had selected it as the point for taking over the train as it did not have a telegraph. As a result, the Confederates at Big Shanty would have to ride to Marietta in order to alert the authorities farther north. Shortly after the passengers disembarked to take breakfast at the Lacey Hotel, Andrews gave the signal. While he and the engineers boarded the locomotive, named General, his men uncoupled the passenger cars and jumped into three box cars. Applying the throttle, Knight began to ease the train out of the yard. As the train pulled out of Big Shanty, its conductor, William A. Fuller, saw it depart through the window of the hotel.

Raising the alarm, Fuller began to organize a pursuit. Up the line, Andrews and his men were nearing Moon's Station. Pausing, they cut the nearby telegraph line before proceeding. In an effort not to arouse suspicion, Andrews directed the engineers to move at a normal speed and to maintain the train's normal schedule. After passing through Acworth and Allatoona, Andrews stopped and had his men remove a rail from the tracks. Though time consuming, they were successful and placed it on one of the box cars. Pushing on, they crossed the large, wooden railroad bridge over the Etowah River. Reaching the other side, they spotted the locomotive Yonah which was on spur line running to a nearby iron works. Despite it being surrounded by men, Knight recommended destroying the engine as well as the Etowah bridge. Unwilling to start a fight, Andrews declined this advice despite the bridge being a target of the raid.

Great Locomotive Chase - Fuller's Pursuit:

Having seen General depart, Fuller and other members of the train's crew began running after it. Reaching Moon's Station on foot, they were able to obtain a handcar and continued down the line. Derailed at the stretch of damaged track, they were able to place the handcar back on the rails and reached Etowah. Finding Yonah, Fuller took over the locomotive and moved it onto the main line. As Fuller raced north, Andrews and his men paused at Cass Station to refuel. While there, he informed one of the station employees that they were carrying ammunition north for General P.G.T. Beauregard's army. To aid the train's progress, the employee gave Andrews the day's train schedule.

Steaming into Kingston, Andrews and General were forced to wait for over an hour. This was due to the fact that Mitchel had not delayed his offensive and Confederate trains were racing towards Huntsville. Shortly after General departed, Yonah arrived. Unwilling to wait for the tracks to clear, Fuller and his men switched to the locomotive William R. Smith which was on the other side of the traffic jam. To the north, General paused to cut the telegraph lines and remove another rail. As the Union men finished their work, they heard the whistle of William R. Smith in the distance. Passing a southbound freight train, pulled by the locomotive Texas, at Adairsville, the raiders became concerned about being pursued and increased their speed.

Great Locomotive Chase - The Mission Fails:

To the south, Fuller spotted the damaged tracks and succeeded in halting William R. Smith. Leaving the locomotive, his team moved north on foot until meeting Texas. Taking over the train, Fuller had it move in reverse to Adairsville where the freight cars were uncoupled. He then continued chasing General with just Texas. Stopping again, Andrews cut the telegraph wires north of Calhoun before proceeding to the Oostanaula Bridge. A wood structure, he had hoped to burn the bridge and efforts were made using one of the box cars. Though a fire was started, the heavy rain of past several days prevented it from spreading to the bridge. Leaving the burning box car, they departed.

Shortly thereafter, they saw Texas arrive on the span and push the box car off the bridge. In an attempt to slow Fuller's locomotive, Andrews' men threw railroad ties on the tracks behind them but with little effect. Though quick fuel stops were made at Green's Wood Station and Tilton for wood and water, the Union men were unable to fully replenish their stocks. After passing through Dalton, they again cut the telegraph lines but were too late to prevent Fuller from getting a message through to Chattanooga. Racing through Tunnel Hill, Andrews was unable to stop to damage it due to the proximity of Texas. With the enemy nearing and General's fuel nearly depleted, Andrews directed his men to abandon the train just short of Ringgold. Jumping to the ground, they scattered into the wilderness.

Great Locomotive Chase - Aftermath

Fleeing the scene, Andrews and all of his men began moving west toward the Union lines. Over the next several days, the entire raiding party was captured by Confederate forces. While the civilian members of Andrews' group were considered unlawful combatants and spies, the entire group was charged with acts of unlawful belligerency. Tried in Chattanooga, Andrews was found guilty and hanged in Atlanta on June 7. Seven others were later tried and hanged on June 18. Of the remainder, eight, who were concerned about meeting a similar fate, successfully escaped. Those who remained in Confederate custody were exchanged as prisoners of war on March 17, 1863. Many of the members of the Andrews' Raid were among the first to receive the new Medal of Honor.

Though a dramatic series of events, the Great Locomotive Chase proved a failure for Union forces. As a result, Chattanooga did not fall to Union forces until September 1863 when it was taken by Major General William S. Rosecrans. Despite this setback, April 1862 saw notable successes for Union forces as Major General Ulysses S. Grant won the Battle of Shiloh and Flag Officer David G. Farragut captured New Orleans.

Selected Sources

  • North Georgia: Great Locomotive Chase
  • Andrews Raid: Great Locomotive Chase

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