- 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
They would form small parties, Andrews told them, and make their way southeastward through enemy lines on foot or by whatever means they could find, meeting in Chattanooga the following Thursday afternoon. From there they would take the Western & Atlantic’s evening train south to Marietta, Georgia, just above Atlanta. If questioned at any point, they were to say they were Yankeehating Kentuckians on their way to enlist in the Confederate army. At Marietta on Friday morning they would board the first northbound train and commandeer ithe would explain the plan for doing that just beforehand.
Their objective, said Andrews, was to burn enough bridges behind them to cripple the Western & Atlantic, then ride their stolen train right on through Chattanooga and westward on the Memphis & Charleston to meet General Mitchel’s division, which meanwhile would have pushed southward across the Tennessee border to Huntsville, Alabama. With Chattanooga cut off from all reinforcement, Mitchel could move in quickly and capture it. When the town was securely in Federal hands, he might even push on to Knoxville in eastern Tennessee, where it was understood there were thousands of Union-minded citizens eager for the sight of Yankee soldiers. As Corporal William Pittenger remembered it, Andrews summed up their mission by saying, “Boys, we’re going into danger, but for results that can be tremendous.”
When the party started toward Chattanooga, it ran into immediate trouble with the weather. Rain pelted down steadily, spilling streams over their banks and turning the roads into quagmires that scotched their hopes of hiring farmers’ wagons to speed the journey. “The whole face of the country was a vast sheet of water,” Private Alf Wilson complained. Traveling in groups of three or four, the Yankees plodded along the sodden roads, slipping into woodsheds and barns to rest or paying for food and shelter at homesteads. Rebel picket posts accepted their cover story and welcomed them to the cause. “With most of us,” explained Dorsey, “the idea of keeping mum and talking as little as possible prevailed. We made it a point to appear as insignificant or uneducated as we could.” At one general store a native was overheard to remark that the strangers were a “lot of country Jakes, who hardly knew enough to come in when it rained.”
Seven of the men, tired of walking, crossed the Tennessee River on a ferry west of Chattanooga and brazenly boarded a Confederate troop train for the journey into the town. The rest made their slow way along the northern bank of the river to a ferry opposite their goal. The schedule for the mission, however, was in disarray. Helpless to speed up the journey, Andrews had to postpone everything by a day. He assumed that the weather would be an equal hindrance to General Mitchel’s march. As he and his men trickled into Chattanooga on Friday, April 11, however, they found the place in an uproar. That morning, they learned, Federal troops had seized Huntsville. Mitchel was on schedule, Andrews a day behind.
How this development would affect the mission Andrews could only guess. His immediate concern was what it might do to the Western & Atlantic’s regular timetable. As his men drifted into the depot to await the southbound evening train, he discovered the count was two short. (Sam Llewellyn and James Smith had run into trouble near the village of Jasper. To allay further suspicious questioning of their cover story, they had promptly enlisted in a nearby Rebel light artillery unit, hoping to desert at the first opportunity and make their way back to Union territory.)
Andrews and his raiders boarded the evening train without event and, as AIf Wilson later described it, “were soon moving off into Dixie at a good rate of speed.” “This,” he added, “was a much easier and more expeditious way of getting on than the tedious marching of the previous four days.” They noted with interest the numerous bridges that carried the Western & Atlantic across meandering Chickamauga Creek. It was midnight when they left the train at Marietta and wangled beds in the town’s two hotels. Porters were instructed to wake them before dawn.
Early the next morning, Saturday, April 12, Andrews held a final briefing in his hotel room. The men were instructed to board the northbound morning mail train and be prepared for action during the twenty-minute breakfast stop at Big Shanty, Georgia, eight miles up the line. When the crew and passengers left the train to eat, Andrews explained, he and engineers William Knight and Wilson Brown and fireman AIf Wilson would commandeer the engine. The others were to move swiftly into one of the head cars after it was uncoupled from the cars behind. “If anyone interferes,” he ordered, “shoot him, but don’t fire unless you have to.”