- 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
The two locomotives thundered on-at times reaching speeds of a mile a minutethrough Dalton, through the long tunnel under Chetoogeta Mountain, across the first of the long bridges over Chickamauga Creek, past Ringgold station. Andrews had ordered the men to set fire to the remaining boxcar in the hope of dropping it off inside one of the covered bridges—to at least partially accomplish the mission-but the day-long rain had soaked everything combustible. “Our fire burned aggravatingly slow,” Corporal Dorsey complained.
A mile or so short of Graysville, near the Georgia-Tennessee border, the General began to flounder. Boiler water was low and the firewood was gone. “The game was almost up …,” said Dorsey. “The grand old iron steed was dying in his tracks.” The General had carried them nearly one hundred miles from Big Shanty, but it could carry them no farther. “Andrews now told us all that it was ‘every man for himself/ that we must scatter and do the best we could to escape to the Federal lines,” AIf Wilson testified.
Before dashing into the woods, engineer Knight threw the General into reverse, but steam pressure was too low and the pursuing Texas easily picked up the slowmoving engine. Puller sent a messenger back to the militia garrison at Ringgold to order a roundup of the fugitives. “My duty ended here,” he reported matter of factly. After six hours of high adventure, he had his stolen train back.
The Andrews party would later blame their failure on the one-day delay in executing the mission. They maintained that had the raid taken place on schedule, before Chattanooga was alarmed by General Mitchel’s capture of Huntsville, the Western & Atlantic would have been clear of the extra trains that held them up so long at Kingston. Nor would any bridge-burning efforts have been hampered by Saturday’s day-long rain. The theory is not improbable, considering how narrow was their margin of defeat despite all the unforeseen complications. By the same token, however, there is little reason to believe that conductor Fuller’s pursuit would have been any less vigorous twenty-four hours earlier. Be that as it may, the Yankees’ gallant failure was not redeemed by any action on General Mitchel’s part.
After taking Huntsville on Friday, Mitchel put a brigade aboard a captured train and, on Saturday, while the Great Locomotive Chase was convulsing northern Georgia, steamed eastward to Stevenson, Alabama, thirty miles from Chattanooga. There he halted, apparently to await the arrival of his raiding party. But the fact that while waiting he burned a rail bridge in front of him suggests that he had already abandoned any hope of seizing Chattanooga by a bold coup de main . Perhaps, like the rest of the Federal high command in that spring of 1862, he was suddenly overwhelmed by caution. Or perhaps, like Andrews, he “delighted in strategy” rather than a slugging match. In any event, Chattanooga remained safely in Confederate hands.
For the raiders, what an Atlanta newspaper headlined as “The Most Extraordinary and Astounding Adventure of the War” was far from ended when they abandoned the General and took to the woods. They soon discovered they were abroad in an alien land.
The news of the Yankee raiders spread rapidly across northern Georgia. In a matter of hours Confederate cavalry patrols were guarding every crossroad and examining every farmer’s lane. The farmers themselves formed posses and with shotguns and butcher knives and tracking dogs tramped across the fields and woodlands, corralling any stranger they encountered.
Without maps or compasses, most of Andrews’ men wandered aimlessly, and one after another they were stopped and questioned-and seized. The story that had worked for them in Tennessee—that they were Kentuckians seeking to join the Rebel army—did not work this far south. Posing as a Confederate officer, Andrews got within a dozen miles of Bridgeport, Alabama, with two of his men before they tried their bluff once too often and were captured.
Privates Alf Wilson and Mark Wood developed the best cover story of all, claiming that they were pursuing the Yankees. They made it to the Tennessee River east of Chattanooga, stole a canoe, and floated all the way down the river past Chattanooga to Stevenson, Alabama, where they expected to find Federal troops. The Federals had left, however; even so, the two had almost talked their way past a Rebel patrol when a civilian rushed up and pointed them out as Yankees. He had been a passenger on the train they commandeered.
Martin Hawkins and John Porter, who had been left behind in Marietta, were taken trying to enlist in the 9th Georgia. Only James Smith and Sam Llewellyn, who early in the mission had joined a Confederate unit to escape detection, successfully deserted and made their way back to Union lines.