- 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 won the race to Calhoun by the slimmest of margins. The southbound passenger train was just pulling out of the station when its engineer heard their screaming whistle and hurriedly reversed far enough to clear the siding switch. Once more Andrews told his story of rushing to General Beauregard’s aid, and once more it got him out on the main line.
Ahead of Andrews was a clear track, but behind him his tenacious pursuers were closing the gap. Just below Adairsville the strong-legged Fuller and Murphy had encountered the southbound local freight, pulled by the Texas , a locomotive of the same class as the General . They piled aboard, shunted all the freight cars off on the Adairsville siding, and raced off northward, pushing the Texas flat out in reverse. For the first time that day, after running almost seven miles, polingahandcar, and riding a switch engine and the small branch-line Rome engine, the two Georgians were in command of a locomotive fully capable of testing the General and its captors. At Calhoun, they too bypassed the southbound passenger train, stopping only long enough to spread the alarm among the local militia.
Near Resaca, five miles north of Calhoun, was a long trestle over the Oostanaula River, one of the raiders’ prime targets. “Some of the first exhilaration we’d felt after capturing the train at Big Shanty was again ours,” Corporal Pittenger recalled, “as we whistled swiftly on for a mile or more, and then stopped to cut the wire, and to take up a rail—as we hopedfor the last time.” They bent to their work, prizing up the spikes with their crowbar and trying to wrench the rail loose with a fence rail. “At that instant, loud and clear from the south, came the whistle of the engine in pursuit,” Pittenger wrote. “By the sound, it was near and closing in fast. A thousand thunderclaps couldn’t have startled us more.”
If the tale of the Great Locomotive Chase has a turning point, it was reached here along this deserted stretch of the Western & Atlantic just north of Calhoun, approximately halfway between Big Shanty and Chattanooga. Thus far James Andrews had been nothing short of brilliant. He had brought his nineteen men through every anticipated danger and improvised his way through dangers entirely unexpected. He had no reason to doubt that the track ahead was clear. Of the quality and tenacity of the pursuit he knew nothing. (The Yankees believed it was simply the last train they had passed; “If we’d been told the full story, we would have thought it too wild and improbable to believe,” Pittenger remarked.) The rail they were trying to lift was well loosened, needing but a few more minutes’ effort, and they would be free of pursuit and able to go about their bridge burning in comparative safety. Yet Andrews chose not to stand and fight long enough to finish the job. Perhaps it was simply the man’s make-up. That, at any rate, was Pittenger’s view. In temperment, he wrote, Andrews “delighted in strategy” rather than “the plain course of a straight outand-out fight with the pursuing train.” The General started off again, leaving the rail loose but still in place. Carefully guiding the Texas over the danger spot, Fuller and Murphy resumed the chase.
Andrews’ delight in strategy was soon evident. Taking advantage of his brief lead, he ordered the last boxcar uncoupled, reversed the General , and sent the car hurtling back down the track. But as with every other surprise he had encountered that eventful day, Fuller was undaunted. He too reversed course, neatly picked up the runaway boxcar in full flight, and then headed north again, pushing it ahead of him. The raiders dropped a second car in the middle of the covered bridge over the Oostanaula, with the same result. Fuller simply shunted the two cars off at Resaca and continued northward.
Above Resaca the Western & Atlantic wound tortuously through rough country, forcing the Confederates aboard the pursuing Texas to proceed carefully, alert for obstructions and ambushes. Obstructions there were. Behind nearly every curve the Yankees had tossed crossties onto the track from the supply in their remaining boxcar. Fuller perched on the tender, signaling back to Murphy and the Texas ’ engineer, Peter Bracken, when the track ahead was blocked. They then heaved over the forward lever, and the Texas , driving wheels spinning, would slide to a stop-sometimes with nothing to spare. “Looking back at it now,” Murphy later recalled, “our whole course seems reckless in the extreme. But we were young then, and youth takes chances that are appalling to old age.” At one point near Tilton on a straight stretch of track the Yankees managed to lengthen their lead enough to stop for badly needed wood and water.
With their engine replenished, they made one more attempt to permanently block pursuit. By now the technique was down pat. One team cut the telegraph line, another piled up obstructions on the track, engineers Knight and Brown checked and oiled the locomotive, and the rest of the party labored to lift a rail. But Andrews, despite the pleading of several of his men, refused to permit an ambush assault on the Rebel train, and time ran out. The moment the Texas came into view, Andrews cried “All aboard!” and the raiders bolted off, leaving the track intact.