- 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
At first light, right on schedule, the morning mail train from Atlanta arrived at the Marietta station. Its locomotive was the powerful woodburner General , built for the Atlantic & Western in 1855 by the Rogers, Ketchum and Grosvenor Works in Paterson, New Jersey. Behind the tender were three empty boxcars, slated to bring commissary stores out of Chattanooga on the return trip, then a string of passenger cars. The Yankees took seats in one of these coaches, according to Dorsey, “in a sleepy, drowsy manner … indifferent to all surroundings.” Again the count was two short. (Martin Hawkins and John Porter had reached the depot only in time to see the train puffing off down the track. They had been at another hotel, and the porter had failed to wake them in time. “I can’t describe my feelings at that moment…,” Porter would recall. “There we were in the heart of the Confederacy, knowing that if we were suspected of anything wrong we could expect death.")
When the train pulled into Big Shanty at 6:45 A.M. , the passengers hurried to Lacy’s Hotel to find places at the breakfast table. With them went conductor William Alien Fuller, engineer Jeff Cain, and the foreman of the W & A’s machine shops, Anthony Murphy, who was along on an inspection trip. The moment they were out of sight, Andrews, engineers Knight and Brown, and fireman Wilson quietly stepped down on the off-side of the train, pulled the coupling pin behind the three boxcars, and checked that the switches were in their favor. As the Yankee crewmen ambled up to the General and climbed aboard, Andrews casually waved the rest of the raiders into the third boxcar. Fifty feet away, sentries at a large Confederate training camp watched the strange performance in puzzlement. At Andrews’ signal, Knight abruptly threw open the throttle, the big driving wheels spun for a moment, and then the General bounded away.
In Lacy’s dining room, foreman Murphy glanced up from his breakfast to see the abbreviated train speeding off. “Someone is moving your engine!” he shouted to conductor Fuller. The crew tumbled out onto the platform, raising the alarm, and the Rebel sentries loosed a few futile shots at the stolen train disappearing around a curve. Murphy’s best guess was that the thieves were deserters from the nearby training camp, taking this unorthodox method of putting distance between themselves and Confederate authorities.
“Fuller, Cain, and myself concluded in a few minutes that our duty was to proceed after them,” Murphv later testified. The Great Locomotive Chase was joined.
The pursuers’ immediate problem was finding something to pursue with. Big Shanty lacked a telegraph station, so there was no way to send a warning up the line, but that did not deter conductor Fuller. Tough and ambitious, twenty-five-yearold William Fuller had risen rapidly through the W & A ranks, and he took the theft of his train as a personal insult. Trailed by Cain and Murphy, he started off along the track at a fast run. Assuming the thieves had limited railroading experience, he expected to find his stolen train abandoned a few miles up the line.
The General , however, was rolling steadily northward at its regular pace. Andrews knew that on the single-track line he would have to hold to the timetable in order to pass the morning’s three scheduled southbound trains at station sidings. Acquiring a crowbar from a track-repair crew they encountered, the raiders paused to take up rails to hinder any pursuit, paused again to cut the wire beyond the first telegraph station they reached, and headed on toward Kingston, thirty miles north of Big Shanty. At Kingston, according to the timetable, they would encounter the first of the southbound trains from Chattanooga.
Fuller, meanwhile, was setting some kind of track record. “I ran two and a half miles, and when I say run, I don’t mean trot, gallop or pace. I mean run,” he later recalled. When he reached the repair crew and heard its story, he began to doubt the deserter theory. The thieves, whoever they were, seemed to have no trouble operating the stolen train. Fuller took the repair crew’s pole car-a small handcar pushed along by poles, much as a keelboat was propelled upstream by poling-and went back to collect the panting Murphy and Cain. Setting off northward once more, the three Georgians discovered the break in the telegraph line. That confirmed it: they were not simply chasing a few Southern farm boys trying to evade soldiering but a band of Yankees bent on something considerably more serious.
Redoubling their efforts, the pursuers twice rounded curves only to be hurled off the track where the raiders had lifted rails. They dragged the pole car across the gaps and labored on. Fuller, who was now fighting mad, set out for Etowah station, where a branch track from the Cooper Iron Works angled into the main line. Cooper’s, he knew, kept a small switching engine named the Yonah . “On we pressed and pushed,” Puller recounted. “When our strength was nearly gone, we hove in sight of Etowah, and to our great delight the engine was there.” The little Yonah was nothing much as locomotives went, but it was a vast improvement over the pole car. Within minutes Fuller, Cain, and Murphy had steam up and were pounding along at full throttle for Kingston, fourteen miles away. It was now raining steadily.