- 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
Since the twenty-two Yankees had been captured in civilian clothes well inside Southern territory, there was strong pressure on the Confederate authorities to hang them as spies. The raiders’ one hope, they realized, was to maintain that they acted under orders and were subject to the rules of war for military prisoners. They were quick to point out the threat of retaliation by the Federal command. “When taunted about the fate that awaited us,” Corporal Dorsey wrote, “we had a stereotyped reply: ‘Hang and be d—d. Our fellows will hang twenty of you for every one you hang of this party.’ ”
Andrews had little faith in this line of defense for himself. He was known to the Confederate high command for his earlier smuggling of medicines into the South, and it was now obvious that he was a double agent. He had no illusions about his fate. According to Pittenger, he remarked to his fellow prisoners, “Boys, I have often thought I’d like to see what’s on the other side of Jordan.” Late in April, Andrews was tried as a spy by a military court in Chattanooga, and on May 31-after a review by Secretary of War Leroy P. Walker and President Jefferson Davis- the verdict was announced. James Andrews was found guilty as charged and sentenced to death by hanging.
The next night Andrews and Private John Wollam used a jackknife one of the raiders had managed to conceal to pry loose the bricks in the wall of their Chattanooga jail and escape. Two days later, however, Andrews was retaken (Wollam evaded capture for a month) and on June 7 the leader of the raiders was taken to a gallows a block from Peachtree Street in Atlanta and hanged. “He died bravely,” conductor Puller reported.
In the meantime, a dozen of the Yankees were transferred to Knoxville and seven of them, chosen at random, were tried by a military court-not for their attempt on the Western & Atlantic, which could be considered a legitimate military target, but for spying on Confederate military camps. All seven were found guilty, brought to Atlanta, and sentenced to death. They were Privates Samuel Robertson, Perry G. Shadrach, Samuel Slavens, and George D. Wilson, Sergeant-Major Marion A. Ross, Sergeant John Scott, and William Campbell, the civilian who had joined the expedition at the last minute.
Standing on the gallows on June 18, Wilson spoke the last words for all of them: “The seven of us have been condemned here as spies. We aren’t that, as even those who convicted us knew.… A lot of you are going to live to be sorry for what you’re now doing. More than that, you’re going to see the Stars and Stripes waving again over the ground this scaffold stands on.”
After the mass execution, the Confederate authorities had second thoughts about this solution to the problem of the “Yankee bridge burners,” as the Southern press described them. For four months the fourteen survivors sweated out their captivity. In mid-October they heard a rumor from their jailer that they too would be tried, and on October 16 they staged a mass breakout from their Atlanta prison.
After adventures that rivaled the locomotive chase itself, eight of the raiders made good their escape. Heading off in all directions to confuse pursuit, they eventually reached Federal forces in such widely scattered places as central Tennessee; Corinth, Mississippi; Lebanon, Kentucky; and Apalachicola, Florida. The experience of William Knight, the engineer who had piloted the stolen General, was typical: “We had spent forty-seven days and nights, passing over some of the roughest country that ever laid out of doors.”
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In March, 1863, the six raiders still in Confederate hands were exchanged. All the survivors were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, the first recipients of that decoration. Corporal William Pittenger was invalided out of the army later in 1863, but the rest of the raiders remained in uniform until the war’s end. On the other side, William Fuller and Anthony Murphy continued to serve the Confederacy until there were no trains left to run. General Ormsby Mitchel’s military career went nowhere after his aborted attempt on Chattanooga, and in October, 1862, at a new post on the North Carolina coast, he died of yellow fever.
Whether the Andrews raiders, had they succeeded, could have shortened the Civil War will never be known. But beyond question the Great Locomotive Chase fully merited that Atlanta newspaperman’s description: it was indeed an extraordinary, astounding adventure.