- 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
Some forty-five minutes before the Georgians piled aboard the Yonah , the Yankee raiders had reached Kingston and backed onto the station siding to await the southbound freight due momentarily. The unexpected arrival of the abbreviated, three-car train, manned by strangers, raised a small commotion, but the resourceful Andrews was ready with an improvised story. He was a Confederate officer on a mission of the highest military priority, he confided to the station agent. General P.G.T. Beauregard, commander of the field army at Corinth, Mississippi, was desperately short of ammunition after the fighting at Shiloh, and this was a special train impressed to carry powder to the embattled Rebels. The moment the southbound freight passed, he would be on his way.
When the freight arrived, however, it bore on its last car a red flag, indicating that an unscheduled train was following. Andrews demanded an explanation. The conductor said that the high command in Chattanooga was evacuating stores and rolling stock because of the threatening Yankee force at Huntsville-Mitchel’s division. Expressing a cold fury he no doubt deeply felt, Andrews ordered the freight to move on down the main track so that the extra train, when it arrived, would not block his powder train. “I must be off the first possible minute,” he snapped.
After an agonizing delay, the extra arrived at Kingston—and it, too, had a red flag on the rearmost car. There was too much rolling stock in Chattanooga for one locomotive to handle, the conductor reported, and a second section had to be made up. By now the sixteen raiders closed up in the “powder train” were decidedly nervous. “A thousand conjectures will spring up at such times …,” Corporal Pittenger later wrote. “To be shut up in the dark, while for all we knew the enemy might be concentrating an overwhelming force against us, was exceedingly trying. … “Engineer Knight strolled over to the boxcar containing the men, leaned his back against the door, and said in a low voice, “Boys, we’ve got to wait a while more for one more train that’s behind time, and the local folks around are getting edgy. If you’re called, be ready to jump out and fight.”
At last came the welcome whistle of the extra’s second section. Like its two predecessors, it was ordered by Andrews to pull on through the station to unblock his northbound train. A very long sixty-five minutes after reaching Kingston, Andrews himself threw the siding switch, and the stolen train rolled out onto the main line again. Just four minutes later, William Fuller arrived on the scene aboard the Yonah .
The gallant little switch engine had made the fourteen-mile run from Etowah in fifteen minutes, only to face the same jam-up that had frustrated the Andrews raiders. Fuller immediately realized that trying to clear the line of the three southbound freights was hopeless. Again he took to shanks’ mare to reach the head of the tangle, two miles away. A branch line from Rome, Georgia, tied into the main line just north of the station, and fortuitously the daily Rome train was waiting on it. With the telegraph still dead-the Yankees had stopped to cut the wire soon after they cleared Kingston—Fuller commandeered the Rome train and once more set out in pursuit.
The raiders were meanwhile pushing hard for Adairsville, ten miles north of Kingston, where two more scheduled southbound trains were to be passed. So far as they knew, there was no alarm out for them. Their cover story was so convincing that at one stop to take on wood and water the Georgian on duty later confessed, “I’d as soon have suspected Mr. Jefferson Davis himself as a man who talked with the assurance Andrews did.” As a precaution, however, Andrews ordered a halt four miles short of Adairsville to take up a rail and load up with crossties to serve as tinder for their bridge burning. At this point the Yankees suddenly spotted the smoke of a pursuing train. With a violent effort they tore the rail loose and resumed their run for Adairsville.
Balked by the torn-up track, Puller had to abandon the Rome engine and for the third time that morning dash northward on foot. His fury was now tinged with desperation. According to the timetable, he knew, once beyond Adairsville the Yankees would have a clear track all the way to Chattanooga.
As Fuller hurried along in the pelting rain, with only foreman Murphy able to keep pace with him, the raiders pulled into the Adairsville station-and found only a local freight waiting on the siding. Due to the confusion in Chattanooga, the conductor told Andrews, the trailing southbound passenger train was running half an hour late. “I’ll have to go out at once,” Andrews insisted. “If the Yankees attack Beauregard, he hasn’t powder enough for a threehour fight.” The conductor cautioned him to run slowly and send a flagman ahead at every curve. “I’ll attend to that,” Andrews assured him. The moment the General was out of sight around the first curve, however, he ordered Knight to open the throttle wide. They had to reach the next station, Calhoun, before the Chattanooga train did or they would be hopelessly blocked. The General , fireman AIf Wilson related, “rocked and reeled like a drunken man, while we tumbled from side to side like grains of popcorn in a hot frying pan.”