Civil War Moments: The Story of the Great Locomotive Chase

Bill Wilson

Chattanooga, Tennessee, is home to the largest national cemetery in the US outside of Arlington. If you ever visit the site, then you will likely notice an unusual monument with a large reproduction of a train engine on top. It’s a tribute to a group of brave men who, on April 12, 1862, engaged in a daring mission intended the hasten the end of the Civil War. The story of that day is one of the more unusual and fascinating accounts from the history of that momentous conflict.

Other than Richmond, the most important city in the Confederacy was Atlanta. Home to most of the South’s manufacturing facilities, it was a also a railroad hub, with tracks running to major towns in neighboring states. The city was located deep in the heart of Georgia and heavily defended, making its capture a daunting prospect indeed.

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In order to claim Atlanta, the Union would first have to take Chattanooga, which was located approximately 100 miles north. The Confederates were well aware of this fact, which is why they kept great reserves of men and munitions on hand along the rail line that joined the two cities. Severing that link would make the North’s much easier. The question was how to do it.

James Andrews, a Kentuckian and spy for the Union, approached Major General Ormsby Mitchell, commander of the Union forces in middle Tennessee, with a proposed solution. He would lead a group of volunteers into Georgia. While pretending to be southerners, they would seize a locomotive and ride it north, tearing up track and destroying telegraph lines and other infrastructure along the way. If successful, they would disrupt supply lines, making it impossible for the South to reinforce Chattanooga in the event of a attack. This would make Mitchell’s goal of seizing the city much easier.

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Andrews led a group of 22 men into Georgia in the early spring of 1862. On April 12th they approached a locomotive that had stopped at the town of Big Shanty (now Kennesaw) for a lunch break. The engineer, William Fuller, looked up from his meal in shock as his engine, which was named General, began to move up the tracks without him at the controls. Yelling bloody murder, he jumped to his feet and tried to catch the runaway train on foot. Thus began a pursuit that went on for hours and stretched from Big Shanty to just south of the Tennessee state line.

Great Locomotive Chase
Great Locomotive Chase

Along the way, Andrews and his raiders stopped to wreck track, cut telegraph lines, and cause other mayhem. Unfortunately for the saboteurs, they lacked the time and the heavy tools needed to do much damage. Meanwhile, Fuller had commandeered a locomotive dubbed the Yonah and was in hot pursuit.

The chase ended at Kingston, where the irate engineer ran across a section of track that Andrews and his team had successfully wrecked. But Fuller was not to be denied. He kept the chase up on foot, reaching a town called Adairsville. There he found a engine named Texas that was facing southward on the tracks. He used it to continue the mission, driving the locomotive backwards as it steamed north. Along the way he picked up 11 Confederate troops to help capture the enemy agents.

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Meanwhile, Andrews’s raiders had been slowed down by both the steep hilly terrain of north Georgia and the need to cause as much damage as they could along their way. They came close to making their getaway good when they almost seized another engine. They intended to derail it, blocking the tracks for up to a day. The locomotive was attended by a large work party, however, and the Yankees feared that taking it would require too much of the dwindling time left before Fuller caught up to them. Trains of the time were not noted for their speed, with 15 mph considered normal. So there was never much room separating the northerners or their southern pursuers.

The General was 18 miles shy of Chattanooga when it ran out of fuel, leaving Andrews and his team stuck behind enemy lines. The men scattered, and six ultimately made it to freedom. Others were caught but freed during a prisoner exchange. As for Andrews himself, he was captured and tried for espionage. On June 7th of 1862 he was hanged in Atlanta; seven members of his party followed him to the gallows on the 18th of that month.

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With the mission a failure, the battle for Chattanooga was delayed until September of 1863, when General William Rosecrans took it for the Union. Atlanta was captured in the following year by Sherman, who remains an infamous figure in southern minds to this day for his conduct during the March to the Sea.

The General survived the war and is now on display at the Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History in Kennesaw, GA. The Texas can be seen at the Atlanta Cyclorama. All members of the raiding party (except for Andrews, who never joined the army) were later awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for their brave efforts. No matter which side one believes was in the right during the American Civil War, the gallantry and daring exhibited by the raiders is worthy of respect and remembrance.