- Historic Sites
The Great Locomotive Chase
It was called “the most extraordinary and astounding adventure of the Civil War”
December 1977 | Volume 29, Issue 1
On the pleasant Sunday evening of April 6, 1862, the men of Company H, 33rd Ohio Infantry, were relaxing around their campfires near Shelbyville, Tennessee, admiring the Southern springtime and trading the latest army rumors. They were joined by the company commander, Lieutenant A. L. Waddle, who announced that he wanted a volunteer for a secret and highly important expedition behind Confederate lines. Corporal Daniel Alien Dorsey, twentythree, a former schoolteacher from Fairfield County, Ohio, said that he was willing to take a crack at it, and he was told to report to company headquarters in the morning. As soon as the lieutenant was out of earshot, the catcalls began. “Good-bye, Dorsey!” “Dorsey, you’re a goner!” And a final shot from the next tent: “Leave us a lock of your hair, Dorsey!”
That evening and the next day, twentytwo more volunteers were culled from the 33rd Ohio and two sister Buckeye regiments, the 2nd and the 21st, at Shelby ville. Most of these men, it seems, had witnessed just enough action, at Bull Run the previous July or in recent skirmishing in Kentucky, to whet their appetites for more. For them, the Civil War was still an adventure. Three of the men-Wilson Brown, Martin Hawkins, and William Knight-were sought out specifically because of their civilian occupations as railroaders. They were wanted, it was explained, to operate a captured Confederate train.
The three Ohio regiments were part of the Army of the Ohio’s 3rd Division, Brigadier General Ormsby MacKnight Mitchel commanding. Ormsby Mitchel, fifty-one and flamboyantly handsome, bubbled with imaginative ideas and bold strategems for bringing down the rebellion. A West Pointer, he had resigned from the army in the 1830's to pursue a varied career that included teaching astronomy and mathematics, practicing law, and building railroads. After Fort Sumter, Mitchel pleaded with Washington, “In God’s name, give me something to do!” but thus far he had done nothing very exciting. Now, from his advanced base at Shelbyville, he could look southward and see great opportunities beckoning. At his side, sharing his vision, was a mysterious civilian named James J. Andrews.
Andrews (if that indeed was his real name) remains even today a shadowy figure. The most avid investigator of his life, Charles O’Neill, deduced that he was foreign-born, probably in Finland, but his life is a blank until 1859, when he appeared in Flemingsburg, Kentucky, and took up house painting and clerking in the local hotel. When the war broke out, Kentucky was a deeply divided state, and as the opposing sides competed for its citizens’ loyalty, it was riven by intrigue. During the winter of 1861-62 Andrews was very much a part of this intrigue, smuggling medicines into the Confederacy and returning with intelligence reports for the Union command. It is not clear just how much of value was in these reports, but, in any event, Andrews developed bold enough ideas about sabotaging the Confederate railroad network to make him welcome in Ormsby Mitchel’s inner circle.
As even the dullest military strategist could see, railroads were the key to the war’s logistics. The South not only had less than half the North’s railroad mileage, but its system was, for military purposes, eccentrically laid out. Linking the eastern and western theaters of war was but one direct line, and tying into that line was but one link to Atlanta, the second most important munitions center (after Richmond) in the Confederacy. The tie-in point for these vital railroads was Chattanooga, Tennessee, just seventy miles from General Mitchel’s headquarters tent. Together, Mitchel and Andrews concocted a scheme aimed at removing the Chattanooga linchpin from the South’s war effort.
Confederate prospects in the western theater were not bright in that spring of 1862. Kentucky was in Union hands, and Yankee forces, such as Mitchel’s division, were deep in Tennessee. Other Yankee troops were advancing down the Mississippi, and an army under U. S. Grant was pushing south along the Tennessee River (it would collide with the Rebels at Shiloh even as the Andrews-Mitchel secret mission was being recruited). An immense Federal naval force was at the mouth of the Mississippi, threatening New Orleans. Losing Chattanooga would be disaster heaped on top of misfortune.
Andrews had focused his spying efforts on the Western & Atlantic Railroad that snaked 138 miles northward from Atlanta through mountainous northern Georgia to Chattanooga. Financed and owned by the state of Georgia, the W & A was one of the best-run roads in the South. A single-track line, with sidings at all principal stations, it was carried across several major streams on covered wooden bridges and through imposing Chetoogeta Mountain in a long tunnel. At Chattanooga it tied into a line from Lynchburg, Virginia, and with the Memphis & Charleston from Memphis.
On Monday evening, April 7, Andrews briefed his twenty-three volunteers. The oldest of them was thirty-two and the youngest eighteen; their average age was twenty-four. One was a civilian, William Campbell, who had wangled himself a place with his friends at the last minute when a 2nd Ohio soldier backed out. All of them wore civilian clothes and were armed with pistols. They were impressed by Andrews’ appearance and bearing. Corporal Dorsey described him as about thirtyfive, “a large, well-proportioned gentleman with a long black silken beard, black hair, [and] Roman features.”