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The Great Locomotive Chase

July 2024
21min read

It was called “the most extraordinary and astounding adventure of the Civil War”

On the pleasant Sunday evening of April 6, 1862, the men of Company H, 33rd Ohio Infantry, were relaxing around their campfires near Shelbyville, Tennessee, admiring the Southern springtime and trading the latest army rumors. They were joined by the company commander, Lieutenant A. L. Waddle, who announced that he wanted a volunteer for a secret and highly important expedition behind Confederate lines. Corporal Daniel Alien Dorsey, twentythree, a former schoolteacher from Fairfield County, Ohio, said that he was willing to take a crack at it, and he was told to report to company headquarters in the morning. As soon as the lieutenant was out of earshot, the catcalls began. “Good-bye, Dorsey!” “Dorsey, you’re a goner!” And a final shot from the next tent: “Leave us a lock of your hair, Dorsey!”


That evening and the next day, twentytwo more volunteers were culled from the 33rd Ohio and two sister Buckeye regiments, the 2nd and the 21st, at Shelby ville. Most of these men, it seems, had witnessed just enough action, at Bull Run the previous July or in recent skirmishing in Kentucky, to whet their appetites for more. For them, the Civil War was still an adventure. Three of the men-Wilson Brown, Martin Hawkins, and William Knight-were sought out specifically because of their civilian occupations as railroaders. They were wanted, it was explained, to operate a captured Confederate train.


The three Ohio regiments were part of the Army of the Ohio’s 3rd Division, Brigadier General Ormsby MacKnight Mitchel commanding. Ormsby Mitchel, fifty-one and flamboyantly handsome, bubbled with imaginative ideas and bold strategems for bringing down the rebellion. A West Pointer, he had resigned from the army in the 1830's to pursue a varied career that included teaching astronomy and mathematics, practicing law, and building railroads. After Fort Sumter, Mitchel pleaded with Washington, “In God’s name, give me something to do!” but thus far he had done nothing very exciting. Now, from his advanced base at Shelbyville, he could look southward and see great opportunities beckoning. At his side, sharing his vision, was a mysterious civilian named James J. Andrews.

Andrews (if that indeed was his real name) remains even today a shadowy figure. The most avid investigator of his life, Charles O’Neill, deduced that he was foreign-born, probably in Finland, but his life is a blank until 1859, when he appeared in Flemingsburg, Kentucky, and took up house painting and clerking in the local hotel. When the war broke out, Kentucky was a deeply divided state, and as the opposing sides competed for its citizens’ loyalty, it was riven by intrigue. During the winter of 1861-62 Andrews was very much a part of this intrigue, smuggling medicines into the Confederacy and returning with intelligence reports for the Union command. It is not clear just how much of value was in these reports, but, in any event, Andrews developed bold enough ideas about sabotaging the Confederate railroad network to make him welcome in Ormsby Mitchel’s inner circle.

As even the dullest military strategist could see, railroads were the key to the war’s logistics. The South not only had less than half the North’s railroad mileage, but its system was, for military purposes, eccentrically laid out. Linking the eastern and western theaters of war was but one direct line, and tying into that line was but one link to Atlanta, the second most important munitions center (after Richmond) in the Confederacy. The tie-in point for these vital railroads was Chattanooga, Tennessee, just seventy miles from General Mitchel’s headquarters tent. Together, Mitchel and Andrews concocted a scheme aimed at removing the Chattanooga linchpin from the South’s war effort.

Confederate prospects in the western theater were not bright in that spring of 1862. Kentucky was in Union hands, and Yankee forces, such as Mitchel’s division, were deep in Tennessee. Other Yankee troops were advancing down the Mississippi, and an army under U. S. Grant was pushing south along the Tennessee River (it would collide with the Rebels at Shiloh even as the Andrews-Mitchel secret mission was being recruited). An immense Federal naval force was at the mouth of the Mississippi, threatening New Orleans. Losing Chattanooga would be disaster heaped on top of misfortune.

Andrews had focused his spying efforts on the Western & Atlantic Railroad that snaked 138 miles northward from Atlanta through mountainous northern Georgia to Chattanooga. Financed and owned by the state of Georgia, the W & A was one of the best-run roads in the South. A single-track line, with sidings at all principal stations, it was carried across several major streams on covered wooden bridges and through imposing Chetoogeta Mountain in a long tunnel. At Chattanooga it tied into a line from Lynchburg, Virginia, and with the Memphis & Charleston from Memphis.

On Monday evening, April 7, Andrews briefed his twenty-three volunteers. The oldest of them was thirty-two and the youngest eighteen; their average age was twenty-four. One was a civilian, William Campbell, who had wangled himself a place with his friends at the last minute when a 2nd Ohio soldier backed out. All of them wore civilian clothes and were armed with pistols. They were impressed by Andrews’ appearance and bearing. Corporal Dorsey described him as about thirtyfive, “a large, well-proportioned gentleman with a long black silken beard, black hair, [and] Roman features.”

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.”

At first light, right on schedule, the morning mail train from Atlanta arrived at the Marietta station. Its locomotive was the powerful woodburner General , built for the Atlantic & Western in 1855 by the Rogers, Ketchum and Grosvenor Works in Paterson, New Jersey. Behind the tender were three empty boxcars, slated to bring commissary stores out of Chattanooga on the return trip, then a string of passenger cars. The Yankees took seats in one of these coaches, according to Dorsey, “in a sleepy, drowsy manner … indifferent to all surroundings.” Again the count was two short. (Martin Hawkins and John Porter had reached the depot only in time to see the train puffing off down the track. They had been at another hotel, and the porter had failed to wake them in time. “I can’t describe my feelings at that moment…,” Porter would recall. “There we were in the heart of the Confederacy, knowing that if we were suspected of anything wrong we could expect death.")

When the train pulled into Big Shanty at 6:45 A.M. , the passengers hurried to Lacy’s Hotel to find places at the breakfast table. With them went conductor William Alien Fuller, engineer Jeff Cain, and the foreman of the W & A’s machine shops, Anthony Murphy, who was along on an inspection trip. The moment they were out of sight, Andrews, engineers Knight and Brown, and fireman Wilson quietly stepped down on the off-side of the train, pulled the coupling pin behind the three boxcars, and checked that the switches were in their favor. As the Yankee crewmen ambled up to the General and climbed aboard, Andrews casually waved the rest of the raiders into the third boxcar. Fifty feet away, sentries at a large Confederate training camp watched the strange performance in puzzlement. At Andrews’ signal, Knight abruptly threw open the throttle, the big driving wheels spun for a moment, and then the General bounded away.

In Lacy’s dining room, foreman Murphy glanced up from his breakfast to see the abbreviated train speeding off. “Someone is moving your engine!” he shouted to conductor Fuller. The crew tumbled out onto the platform, raising the alarm, and the Rebel sentries loosed a few futile shots at the stolen train disappearing around a curve. Murphy’s best guess was that the thieves were deserters from the nearby training camp, taking this unorthodox method of putting distance between themselves and Confederate authorities.

“Fuller, Cain, and myself concluded in a few minutes that our duty was to proceed after them,” Murphv later testified. The Great Locomotive Chase was joined.

The pursuers’ immediate problem was finding something to pursue with. Big Shanty lacked a telegraph station, so there was no way to send a warning up the line, but that did not deter conductor Fuller. Tough and ambitious, twenty-five-yearold William Fuller had risen rapidly through the W & A ranks, and he took the theft of his train as a personal insult. Trailed by Cain and Murphy, he started off along the track at a fast run. Assuming the thieves had limited railroading experience, he expected to find his stolen train abandoned a few miles up the line.

The General , however, was rolling steadily northward at its regular pace. Andrews knew that on the single-track line he would have to hold to the timetable in order to pass the morning’s three scheduled southbound trains at station sidings. Acquiring a crowbar from a track-repair crew they encountered, the raiders paused to take up rails to hinder any pursuit, paused again to cut the wire beyond the first telegraph station they reached, and headed on toward Kingston, thirty miles north of Big Shanty. At Kingston, according to the timetable, they would encounter the first of the southbound trains from Chattanooga.

Fuller, meanwhile, was setting some kind of track record. “I ran two and a half miles, and when I say run, I don’t mean trot, gallop or pace. I mean run,” he later recalled. When he reached the repair crew and heard its story, he began to doubt the deserter theory. The thieves, whoever they were, seemed to have no trouble operating the stolen train. Fuller took the repair crew’s pole car-a small handcar pushed along by poles, much as a keelboat was propelled upstream by poling-and went back to collect the panting Murphy and Cain. Setting off northward once more, the three Georgians discovered the break in the telegraph line. That confirmed it: they were not simply chasing a few Southern farm boys trying to evade soldiering but a band of Yankees bent on something considerably more serious.

Redoubling their efforts, the pursuers twice rounded curves only to be hurled off the track where the raiders had lifted rails. They dragged the pole car across the gaps and labored on. Fuller, who was now fighting mad, set out for Etowah station, where a branch track from the Cooper Iron Works angled into the main line. Cooper’s, he knew, kept a small switching engine named the Yonah . “On we pressed and pushed,” Puller recounted. “When our strength was nearly gone, we hove in sight of Etowah, and to our great delight the engine was there.” The little Yonah was nothing much as locomotives went, but it was a vast improvement over the pole car. Within minutes Fuller, Cain, and Murphy had steam up and were pounding along at full throttle for Kingston, fourteen miles away. It was now raining steadily.

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.”

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.

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.

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.”



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.


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